Set in Grace County, North Carolina in 1960, Necessary Lies parallels the lives of Jane Forrester and Ivy Hart. At first glance, fifteen-year-old tobacco-farm worker Ivy appears to live in a completely different world than Jane, a newlywed married to a doctor, but both struggle for control over their lives. Ivy is the glue that holds her family together since her father died. And when her mother was institutionalized Ivy, her grandmother, her sister Mary Ella, and her nephew must rely on one another, as well as the tobacco farmer on whose land they live and work.
As a piece of historical fiction, Chamberlain touches upon a variety of political and social issues; from race and socioeconomic status, to reproductive rights. Told from Jane and Ivy's alternating viewpoints, the story unfolds in their interactions with one another and other characters. Each character's first-person account complements the other, and occasionally fills in gaps in the other’s perspective.
At a time when women’s reproductive rights are just taking shape in the form of the birth control pill, mandated sterilizations are still performed. Necessary Lies highlights choices given or taken based on one’s socioeconomic status. As a newlywed, Jane decides to take advantage of the opportunity to determine when to start a family by way of the newly developed birth control pill. As a social worker, she soon learns that her clients, while being given contraceptives, may also be subject to sterilization, with or without their knowledge.
At just under 350 pages, this is a quick read with short chapters. The vernacular used by Ivy and her family appears natural, but is slightly awkward to read, and is a stark contrast to Jane's proper grammar. I was shocked and fascinated by the sterilization of women without their knowledge, as women simultaneously gain a tentative independence.