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REVIEWING

The Doctor and the Diva

by Adrienne McDonnell


Pamela Dorman Books (Viking) | 432pp.

Reviewed by Janet Garber


doctor and the diva cover

There have always been women, even dating back to 1903, who have aspired to “Have It All”: husband, children and career.  And not just any old husband, child or career would do.  They want a Rich and Handsome Spouse, an Adaptable, preferably Stowable Child, and an Internationally Acclaimed Career on the their wish lists.  Finding a balance between work and family? Ah, who had time to think about that?

Erika von Kessler, our story’s ravishing heroine, is married to a hunk named Peter, who’s rich from trading textiles internationally, sexy and fit (with a cute butt, we’re told), and extremely adventurous.  He gives her everything he thinks she should have, a lovely townhouse in Boston, a lively social life, and gorgeous gowns and furs.  But here’s the rub: he wants children and she thinks she does too, but none have been forthcoming.  They go to the rounds of fertility specialists (think syringe/turkey baster in terms of technology) and finally are referred to the young Dr. Ravell, a successful obstetrician who just happens to be a single magnet for every restless matron in the Back Bay.  He’s a lovely, well-meaning fellow, but not overly concerned with bioethical issues if they get in the way of his plans or his patients’ desires.

Dr. Ravell quickly unravels the problem through simple sleuthing, then adds a few tangles of his own until we are left with one heck of a ball of yarn.  Without revealing too much of the plot, let’s just say that once Sarah gets her kid, she decides she needs more in her life in order to be fulfilled.  She blithely jettisons the family to pursue her real passion: singing opera.  “God wouldn’t have given me this voice if He didn’t want me to use it,” she haughtily declares as she boards an ocean liner to Italy.

What will happen to her marriage, her increasing infatuation with Dr. Ravell (and vice versa), and her motherless child?  Peter and Dr. Ravell seem awfully fond of each other; they even go on trips to the tropics together – is it too early in history for a threesome?   Could there be some latent homoeroticism in store for readers?   For that, you will have to read the book, and I highly recommend that you do.                  Despite an over-reliance on a soap opera/General Hospital/Calling Dr. Kildare plot that turns a touch maudlin toward the end (just before the happy ending), McDonnell, I believe, intended to aim higher than her material.

She has said the story is a real one, based on a family member’s great-great grandmother’s actual experiences, diaries, and notes.  She has re-imagined this story and artfully populated it with somewhat sympathetic, though deeply flawed characters.  Erika’s dilemmas as she struggles with her musical ambitions vs. her desire to conform to conventional family life and be a mother to her child, will resonate with women readers today. She feels trapped in her role as an early 20th century wife and mother, particularly with a husband who takes a few too many business trips.  She yearns for a bohemian life, sitting in cafes with gay friends, and sipping coffee between her operatic performances.  She has romantic illusions which seem to trump loyalty or love.  We see her as a real woman, not always likable perhaps, certainly self-involved and immature, but what artist isn’t?

Peter is the ultimate businessman, thinking of his marriage as a trade: I give you material goods and as much of my time as I can spare; you fulfill your duties as my spouse and the mother of my child.  He is a realist and attacks his problem with the same frame of mind.  Like Dr. Ravell, whom he genuinely appreciates, he enjoys exploring the wild places of the world and collecting specimens along the way.  In some ways, he’s the most mature and grounded of the characters.

Dr. Ravell is a boy wonder of 30, overly impressed with the promising arc of his medical career, and seemingly incapable of not sabotaging himself.  He sins against convention, medical ethics and friendship, and is quite unperturbed by the consequences of his exile to Trinidad where he plants yaw-yaw trees instead of delivering babies. 

Yet, we are drawn to him because he is a man of heart, putting his patients’ well-being and happiness above all other concerns. He’s foolish, but endearing, as well. Erika remarks that they two are really alike and she’s right.  They both do what they want to do, regardless of the consequences.

The Doctor and the Diva, is beautifully written and McDonnell has an acute eye for lush description, whether of the tassels on a lamp in the corner of the room, the views from the window of a garret in Florence, or the thrill of a buggy ride along a path by the ocean in Trinidad.  She creates appealing, multifaceted characters who set out to get what they want, and when they get it, understanding that this is not a perfect world, they suspect that they will have to pay a price for what they believe in and what they wish for.

McConnell has taught college literature and fiction writing classes in California, and this is her first novel.  She has written a book that is a great read, perfect to take on vacation or to the beach.  I sense there is a more serious book in her waiting to emerge…perhaps next time.



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