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About The Book

From “a writer at the top of her game” (The New York Times) comes a bighearted and sharply funny debut novel about two estranged sisters and the crossroads they face after becoming unexpectedly pregnant at the same time.

Two years after the death of their mother, Jada and Maddy Battle both navigate unplanned pregnancies. Jada, a thirty-one-year-old psychology PhD student living in Pittsburgh, quietly obtains an abortion without telling her husband, but the secret causes turmoil in her already shaky marriage. Back home in rural Pennsylvania, nineteen-year-old Maddy, who spends her time caring for birds at a wildlife rehabilitation center, is paid off by the man who got her pregnant to get an abortion. But an unsettling visit to a crisis pregnancy center adds to her doubts about whether to go through with it.

Although Maddy still hasn’t forgiven Jada for a terrible betrayal, she goes to her for support, only to discover the cracks in the façade of her sister’s seemingly perfect life. As their past resentments boil over, the sisters must navigate the consequences of their choices and determine how best to care for themselves and each other.

With luminous prose and laser-sharp psychological insight, How to Care for a Human Girl is a compassionate and unforgettable examination of the complexities of choice, the special intimacy of sisterhood, and the bizarre ways our heated political moment manifests in daily life.


Chapter 1: Jada 1 JADA March 2018
Make an observation that defines a problem.

Every experiment begins here, in the first step of the scientific method: a witnessing, the bud of a question opening. When Jada woke one morning at the gray genesis of dawn, she felt the problem in her gut before she registered it in her mind, the body always knowing what the brain, in dreams, forgets.

For a moment, when she opened her eyes, the world was blank, innocent in its emptiness. Then context settled on the day like a layer of dust, and things came into focus in all their flaw and detail, and she made her observations, remembered where and when and who she was. Where: Pittsburgh, her bedroom, her husband beside her. When: eighteen months since her mother’s death. Who: a woman, grief-drenched and unexpectedly pregnant.

Next to her, Blake dozed, mouth hanging open. Here was the problem, bigger even than the pregnancy itself: although she knew he’d celebrate the news, she couldn’t bring herself to share it.

The sun rose, and the hushed world grew dense and strained as though packed into a space too small. She felt a weight on her chest like ghost hands pressing down. One of her own hands went to her abdomen, the other to her heart. So sweet, she thought, and good—the steadfast organ pumping devotedly away. Jada pictured her heart like a plump strawberry ripe in the crate of her chest, and she felt for that diligent fruit the kind of grateful affection she had tried and so far failed to feel for the cluster of cells that had attached itself to her uterine wall.

She had always assumed she would be a mother, had been primed for it ever since her sister, Maddy, was born just before their mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. Jada had become a surrogate parent at twelve, caring for Maddy while her mother underwent surgery and chemo, lost her breasts and her hair, her balance and control of her hands. Two bald girls in the house then, one in a bed and one in a crib, both crying inconsolably: mother and child. Before Maddy’s birth—their mother was forty and not trying—their parents had referred to her as a miracle. But although Jada loved Maddy, she was plagued by an unfair but unshakable vision of her as a kind of inadvertent bringer of death. Her beginning had been the beginning of the end.

Besides, Jada no longer believed in miracles. She believed in data, in the scientific method. She was earning her doctorate in social psychology, researching the mechanics of choice and decision-making in intimate relationships. Whether it was because of this training or her time raising Maddy or some innate flaw in her character that she could not view her own pregnancy as miraculous, Jada could not be sure.

She’d known for three days, and yesterday, she had almost told Blake. At least, she had considered it. Or at least, she had felt a surge of disproportionate, overwhelming tenderness toward him when he opted to use a stepladder rather than the arm of the couch when reaching up to screw a light bulb into a wall sconce. Tears had welled in her eyes. But she’d said nothing then, and she said nothing now, a pressure in her throat, a pounding in her head.

In the silence and the stillness her hands found each other, as they had often since her mother’s death—a childish habit, holding her own hand. She crossed them at the wrists and interlocked her fingers, and somehow it worked, even now; she felt calm, held. She should hold her husband’s hand. She should reach for him. Instead she drew into herself, rubbing her finger with her thumb, insisting, It’s going to be okay.

Then came the sudden, blaring hysteria of the neighbor’s car alarm. Jada let go of her hand quickly, like she’d been caught by a watchful chaperone. Blake’s alarm clock joined the chorus, a series of chimes and angry vibrations from his phone across the room, and he groaned, hauled his legs over the side of the bed, and stood. An impersonal morning boner tented his boxers. Jada closed her eyes and let one hand return to the spot over her heart.

The din of the day picked up around her: the whine of an ambulance siren, the squawk of a blue jay. Sunlight hardened into stripes like bars that crossed her blanketed body, locking her in a silvery cell. Her skin felt sore. But she rose from her bed, she smoothed the imprint of her body from the still-warm sheets. There was a day to be got through, a problem to be puzzled over. There were choices to be made.

She spent the day on the couch, laptop warming her thighs, a jasmine-scented candle burning beside her. She was working on the protocol for her latest experiment, a study of choice overload and reversibility on undergraduate daters, and she lost herself in the work until Blake got home—at which point, to her horror, she observed herself hiding from him in the hall closet.

It was an involuntary physical reaction that did not occur to her as problematic until she was settled, ankles crossed, arms wrapped around her legs. She was still in her pajamas when she heard the garage door yawn open and Blake’s BMW pull inside, and at first she told herself the pajamas explained her sprint to the closet, as if she intended to doll up for his arrival like some fifties housewife. But the closet she fled to did not contain her clothes, and besides, she had observed this much in her going-on-two years of marriage: in the dream scenes that flashed before your eyes as you zipped your wedding dress and fixed the clasps on your heels, you pictured yourself always that clean and well-clothed, an advertisement for happiness and good hygiene. But this vision was a delusion; marriage was mostly pajamas.

Anyway: he killed the engine; she bolted. Shut the door behind her and sat down beside the vacuum cleaner, where she remained as he wandered through the house, calling her name. He still didn’t know about the pregnancy. He didn’t know, either, how sometimes Jada took out a letter her mother had sent her years ago, placed a clean sheet of paper over the page, and slowly copied the handwriting, one loop at a time. Or listened to old voicemails from her mother on repeat, even the three-minute butt dial that consisted of nothing but the garbled TV noise of The Ellen DeGeneres Show punctuated with her mother’s occasional laughter.

What he did know, what they both knew, was that her desire was dead. When he reached for her, she rolled away. When he touched her, she flinched, floundered, too slippy to be held. The sex that had led to conception had been a chore, and now, with her legs crossed beneath her on the closet floor, Jada was forced to recognize this fact more directly than she had before. Make an observation that defines a problem: here she was; she was here. Now came the question: Why?

She’d left the candle burning in the living room and could smell the jasmine scent wafting through the crack under the closet door. Except for the vacuum and some winter coats, a few cleaning supplies, and the ukulele Blake had bought on a whim once in Maui and never played, the closet where she hid was empty. She and Blake had moved into the house shortly before they married—she’d owned almost nothing at the time—and it was bigger than they needed. He’d tried fireman-carrying her over the threshold but in the process had knocked the tender bone on the outside of her ankle against the doorframe, and this knocking now seemed like a symbol of something, some fundamental way in which she did not fit here on Fifth Avenue, in the too-fancy house he’d bought. She had cried out in pain, “My lateral malleolus!” and he’d dropped her, his chivalry spoiled. They were the first to live in the house, and its virginal purity—walls without scratches, pristine hardwoods—both delighted and unnerved her, satisfying her clean-freak tendencies but striking her, at the same time, as unmaintainable, unreal.

After ten minutes, Blake blew out the candle. Jada smelled the faint slither of smoke through the closet crack. She heard him ask the cat where she was, heard the cat meow apathetically, heard her phone ring from the spot on a shelf where she’d left it. He was calling her.

He padded past the closet, pausing outside it on his way down the hall, so close Jada could hear her phone ringing both in the living room and from the device held to his ear. Why was he letting it ring? Clearly her phone was home, and as far as he was concerned, she was not. Then the ringing stopped and the floor creaked, Blake shifting his weight from foot to foot, and she wondered if he could sense her presence. Equal to her fear of being caught was her fear of not being so; his finding her might indicate that they were connected by something, some invisible force capable of permeating doors, some connubial sonar in him that pinged in her proximity. She sat unbreathing in hope and fear until he moved back down the hallway, flopped onto the couch, and turned on the TV.

Even as her shame swelled—what kind of wife was she?—it occurred to Jada that there might be some strategic advantage to her position in the closet, that from its confines she might observe her way toward a better understanding of the man on the other side of the door. Fly on the wall, wife in the closet: same difference. She knew people changed their behavior when they knew they were being observed. She recalled the research, the psychologists concealing themselves in bathroom stalls or standing by soap dispensers in plain sight, counting the number of toilet users who washed their hands. The verdict was that most everyone washes—when they know they’re being watched.

What was the handwashing equivalent that Blake might let slide outside of her presence? Entertaining this question was a useful way of avoiding a larger, tougher one—the question of why she was in the closet at all—and Jada gave herself over to it eagerly. She was entitled to this information, she assured herself; in marrying her, Blake had agreed that his intimacy with her would grow over time to heights neither of them could fathom at the moment they exchanged rings. Marriage: the quintessence of informed consent.

But she learned little, only things she already knew. He liked to recite frequently aired commercials alongside their narrators. He liked to talk to the cat, trilling the occasional syllable in an imitation purr. In the beginning his dorky humor and the confidence with which he dispatched it had been part of what drew Jada to him. (“I’ll have the leg of salmon,” he’d said to the white-vested server at their first fancy dinner out, and winked at her as the server fumbled, confused. “The pay’s great,” he’d tell someone at a party, describing his job as an anesthesiologist, “but the work is mind-numbing.”) His jolliness took the pressure off her, allowed her to fade into the background, smiling and nodding, thinking and analyzing. She had always been the serious girl, the studious girl, and she had grown into a serious and studious woman, stressed out, living on a shoestring budget when she met Blake through a dating app, setting up her studies, wrangling research assistants, writing articles, driving home on weekends to visit her sick mother. How hungrily she’d gravitated toward the ease with which Blake glided through the world, opening his wallet, telling his jokes. She had wanted a slice of that ease for herself. She had wanted other things, too, back then.

For instance: frequent and athletic sex of the kind that, lately, had come to feel physically impossible to her. For instance: to be someone else. For instance: to truly believe, as he did, that things were generally okay and would remain okay no matter what happened, who lived or died, who was or wasn’t president. To be cared for, cooked for; to be handed mixed drinks if he was home when she came back from class or a long day of writing; to arrive at his condo and find him chopping a bell pepper or crushing cloves of garlic under the blade of a knife. He worked with a group that administered office-based anesthesia for pain management and worked set hours, and he drew sharp boundaries between his work life and home life in a way Jada respected but couldn’t bring herself to replicate. She could cook, as well—she’d fed herself through college, forgoing expensive meal plans; she’d fed Maddy when her mother was too shaky with neuropathy to hold a spoon—but it excited her to have the option not to. She could mix her own drinks but found herself glad to outsource the work. Gradually she began to understand how much of what she’d done throughout her childhood and adult life she had done not because she’d wanted to, but because she’d had to. Until she met him, she had not had the luxury of telling the difference.

At first it excited her that she and Blake had little in common. He’d never known debt or poverty; his parents had paid for his college and med school, bought him a condo in Philadelphia while he was at Penn Medicine, a house in Durham during his residency at Duke. Nothing terrible had ever happened to him, and he lived relatively free of any fear that it would. Yes, she’d read the research on heterogamy and homogamy, she had plumbed the meta-analyses, she had learned that while most of us claim to want a partner with opposite traits, in fact much of our attraction and relationship satisfaction is rooted in similarity. But you can know what the hot dog’s made of and eat it anyway. You can know something is true and still think it won’t be true for you. Rational choice theory has long been debunked; we are not rational choosers but creatures of want and whimsy.

Blake shut off the TV, and Jada heard him open the fridge, exclaim, “What! No milk?” and backtrack down the stairs, into the garage and into his car, rewinding his presence, and she scurried to the bathroom, turned on the shower, and prepared the lie she told herself was not one: she’d been for a run. (She had, yesterday. It was not untrue.)

He was a good man. He would be a good father. But as Jada stood with the water weeping down and scrubbed her skin raw, she understood with a clarity that was uncharacteristic of her that she would not have this child.

About The Author

Photograph by Alyssa Luna Green

Ashley Wurzbacher is the author of How to Care for a Human Girl and the short story collection Happy Like This, which won the 2019 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Born and raised in western Pennsylvania, she currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and teaches at the University of Montevallo. Learn more at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (September 12, 2024)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982157234

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Raves and Reviews

“I laughed and cried and saw myself—saw every woman I’ve ever known—in the story of the Battle sisters.” –ANNA SOLOMON, author of The Book of V.

“A trenchant and bounteous story of two sisters fighting for autonomy and how even in the grips of indecision women must get to decide their own lives.” —Michelle Hart, author of We Do What We Do in the Dark

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