The Doctor's Wife
Perhaps I'm in danger of becoming one of those cynical single urbanites, but whenever I pick up a novel that starts out with a seemingly perfect couple and their seemingly perfect children, living in a seemingly perfect neighborhood, I want to rub my hands together with glee. You just KNOW it's all going downhill from there. But even this cynical urbanite was surprised by the depths to which Elizabeth Brundage will go with her characters. And THE DOCTOR'S WIFE is all the better for it. Note here: if your book club has gotten too genteel lately and is in need of a good cage-rattling, this is just the novel to do it.
THE DOCTOR'S WIFE is set in upstate New York --- civil, picturesque, well-mannered upstate New York --- and centers on Michael and Annie Knowles, the kind of couple that sits around listening to NPR's soothing, well-modulated liberal voices on Sunday mornings while doing the crossword in the Times; the smell of their toasted designer bagels mingling with the scent of their designer coffee, while their perfect children in Gap chic are playing nearby before rushing off to soccer and other mainstays of suburban life. Michael is a young, extremely busy and successful OB/GYN at a prominent hospital; Annie is a Miss Porter's School-educated college professor who teaches creative writing (naturally). But wait --- is that a rat we smell amidst the Starbucks?
Annie is growing bored being "the doctor's wife," particularly since the Good Doctor is never around. It appears that Doc's bell is being rung these days by Celina James, an old flame who appeals to much more than Michael's libido --- she has a good-sized socio-political agenda wrapped up in the shape of her Women's Health Clinic, the town's only provider of abortions. Celina enlists Michael to help her at the Clinic, and soon Michael's already-limited free time from the hospital is being spent at Celina's clinic. There are no sparks between them these days except professional ones, but clearly he prefers the energy of Celina to Annie's world.
Unfortunately for Michael, the guy who IS around for Annie just happens to be Tall, Brooding, Successful-yet-Misunderstood Suffering Artist-turned-Art-Professor Simon Haas. Never mind that Simon himself is married to the beautiful Lydia Haas, his longtime muse, though she has enough skeletons in her closet to populate a Grateful Dead concert. When the Knowles family starts getting all kinds of anonymous threats, it's not clear at first where they're coming from or why --- are they the work of the Right-Wing Extremists running around town protesting Michael's moonlighting gig, or are these more personal in nature?
What evolves is a novel of psychological suspense that is edgy and compelling. Brundage's sense of plot and timing is impeccable, and she really knows how to hook a reader from the very first chapter. The action starts with a kidnapping and it does not let up from there. The story unfolds with many of the twists coming out of the past.
While her characters were multi-faceted, complex and memorable --- particularly the Haas family --- I confess to being ultimately disappointed in the somewhat black-and-white view she took on the abortion issue. The way the characters are depicted, everyone who feels abortion is wrong is not only half-crazy but leans so far to the "Religious Right" that they're in danger of falling over. Still, enough time and devotion are spent developing all of the primary characters to keep this from being overwhelmingly negative. In fact, even the two-dimensional characters provide ample fodder for discussion.
Surprisingly, this is Brundage's first novel and is sure to be a tough act to follow --- although I for one will be looking forward to seeing her try. Full of suspense, memorable characters and thought-provoking issues, I can pretty much guarantee that THE DOCTOR'S WIFE will be making its rounds for a long time to come.
--- Reviewed by Lourdes Orive
THE DOCTOR'S WIFE tells a despicable tale about a despicable bunch of people engaged in despicable practices. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, whether you're here on the right with me or over there on the left, there is something in THE DOCTOR'S WIFE that will make you furious.
I must admit that I'm absolutely livid over this book, yet I would have read it from beginning to end even if I wasn't reviewing it. I spent as much time throwing it across the room as I did reading it, but I also kept picking it back up. It's that's good. It inspired emotion in me. It also made me write a check to Right to Life; it may outrage you in a different manner, compelling you to volunteer some hours at Planned Parenthood.
THE DOCTOR'S WIFE does not contain one major character who is, on balance, likable. There's the doctor, Michael Knowles, who has a respectable OB/GYN practice at a major hospital. The strain of Knowles's practice is wearing him down and quietly destroying his home life, so what does he do? He begins a Saturday practice at a local aboritorium run by his former lover. Knowles is clueless; his kids all but consider him a stranger, his wife is wanting some attention (we'll get to her in a minute), and he can't figure out why his partners in his obstetrics practice, not to mention his co-workers at the hospital, might object to his Saturday side work.
Then there is Annie, the wife. A king-sized pain in the rear, that one. Given the choice between spending a Saturday afternoon with her politically correct self and performing abortions, one almost --- almost --- can understand Knowles picking the latter. Annie teaches writing at a private local women's college, turning potentially good brains into skulls full of mush. She refuses to wear sexy lingerie for her husband for "political" reasons and even grudgingly supports her husband's Saturday activities, even as her children cry for dad's presence.
Annie's sexual politics are challenged, however, when she attracts the attention of Simon Haas. Haas is the art professor at the college, a once acclaimed painter whose work, from the sound of it, treads the line between art and kiddie porn and who sniffs around his young female students like a blind dog in a meathouse where the tenderloins sniff back. Haas is married to Lydia, yet that doesn't prevent him from brushing up against Annie --- literally.
Haas became Lydia's de facto guardian when she was 14 years old. He made his reputation with his seminude paintings of her, works that were at once erotic and disturbing. Lydia has slipped loose of her mental moorings well before we meet her in THE DOCTOR'S WIFE, due in equal parts to her life before and with Haas. Haas, who ostensibly rescued her from an unspeakable home life, has exploited her in his paintings and, among other things, forced her to have an abortion that she didn't want --- didn't "choose" --- but that, she was assured, was for her own good.
And those are just the major characters. There is also an extremist pro-life group led by a cartoon of a preacher named Reverend Tim, who happens to be the chaplain at Michael Knowles's hospital. It is difficult to understand Reverend Tim's allure --- one is reminded of the cheerfully delusional, terminally ill cleric in HBO's "Deadwood." The reverend coerces Lydia into planting a bomb in the aboritorium and indirectly orchestrates an attempt to assassinate Knowles in an idiotic Keystone Kops fashion that would never work in a hundred years.
About the only likable characters in THE DOCTOR'S WIFE are the Knowles children, who we come to know intermittently and well (and who instinctively recoil from their dad's Saturday morning practice); the children who go into, but not out of, the aboritorium, and who we come to know not at all; and a couple of family pets.
So...why do you need to read THE DOCTOR'S WIFE? For the core of the tale. Brundage makes you care about what happens to these characters, even if you want the principals all consigned to various levels of hell. Annie is a self-absorbed, unsympathetic character, yet, as she is drawn into the affair with Haas, one can feel her conflict as if it was the reader's own. And what for Haas began as a conquest ends with him unexpectedly entrapped when he slowly (for reasons that are never quite clear) finds himself falling in love with Annie.
And Lydia. She may be a victim and is perhaps uneducated, but she isn't stupid nor helpless. No, this is a very dangerous woman. She knows her husband is going to be involved with Annie almost as soon as he does. Goaded by Reverend Tim, Lydia slowly but surely goes after Annie. One is put somewhat in the mind of Fatal Attraction at times, in the sense that such affairs, no matter how well or ill-intended, always come with a price that is more often than not paid with dear and sad coin. We all have choices, but the choices we make are sometimes wrong.
There are some flaws in the book --- the author mistakes libel for slander at one point, and becomes confused about the difference between a revolver and a pistol, a cartridge and a chamber. And what ultimately happened to Reverend Tim in the kitchen? But that said, it's a book that stays with you.
THE DOCTOR'S WIFE is a multi-layered work, a cautionary tale that is sure to be controversial for everyone. Bring it to your reading group with a wrestling mat. You're all going to need it.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
Reviewed by Lourdes Orive and Joe Hartlaub on November 29, 2005