In A Portable Egypt, Catherine Madsen explodes the platitudes and dogmas of both sides of the contemporary abortion debate. The characters, caught in the ethical and emotional friction between religion and civil rights, behave in ways that contradict their own opinions. The choices demanded of them by other people, and by their own conflicts between belief and desire, are painful, ironic, sometimes suffocating, and sometimes outright dangerous.
The central characters in A Portable Egypt are four people whose lives have drawn them to the battleground of abortion politics: Mim Como, a young woman who does not feel at home in religion, but is compulsively drawn to it; Alan Lonigan, an opinion columnist who feels at home only in religion, but whose religion puts him in an impossible position; Sarita Bunge, a dressmaker to whom religion is alien because she has art; and Bob Morgenzahl (known to Mim later as Ari), a doctor to whom religion is unnecessary because he is immersed in compassionate action. As they attempt to navigate between the moral attractions of religion and the requirements of private conscience, they open themselves to the reactions of strangers, fanatics, and well-meaning people on both sides of the issue who take comfort in simple answers.
Disarmingly sympathetic, sharply satirical, and frankly erotic, A Portable Egypt recognizes the confusions of sex and the inadequacies of a public debate that attemptson both sidesto make sexual behavior predictable. There are no easy answers here, but the quality of the questions is unusual.
A PORTABLE EGYPT is that rare, almost unheard-of creature: a political novel that treats a divisive issue not as a chasm that runs between people, but as one that runs within them. This is a brave work that avoids easy answers.Dara Horn
In an era when the great mysteries of life and death are being reduced to a war of bumper stickers, Madsens novel confronts the reader with the many dimensions of what it means to be human. The measure of her achievement is in how she extends humanity even to those whose politics some readers might find reprehensible. In doing so, she respects the humanity of us all.Julius Lester