Review: The Heart Specialist

The Heart Specialist
Claire Holden Rothman
Soho Press
$25.00, hardcover, 384 pages
Also available as Ebook (price varies)
Release date: June 7, 2011

As a young girl around the turn of the 20th century, Agnes White would spend time in her father’s medical office, marveling at the human organs he’d collected at autopsies. After a mysterious tragedy, her father abandoned Agnes and her sister. Agnes would be driven to follow in her father’s footsteps and earn her own medical degree, eventually managing a medical museum at McGill University while her male colleagues join the medical corps in World War I.

Inspired by the true stories of the first female doctors, The Heart Specialist promises a story of overcoming adversity and struggles to gain acceptance in a male-dominated world. The novel also promises a mystery and family drama as Agnes searches for clues to her father’s whereabouts who deserted the family after possibly murdered his mentally imbalanced sister. Unfortunately, the novel does not deliver on these promises or any of the other intriguing plots and characters Claire Holden Rothman introduces only to leave dangling or set aside in favor of another.

The novel begins when Agnes is a child and concludes when she’s in her 50s. In between, it pauses at what may be important moments in Agnes’ life before jumping several months or years to another moment even as it skips scenes Agnes alludes to later.

In some sections, Rothman provides detailed settings and secondary characters only to turn her back on them just as the novel’s world starts to feel real. Events move too quickly to get more than a fleeting glimpse of Agnes’ formative years at her grandmother’s home in rural Canada and then at a boarding school. Her time as an undergraduate college student is only mentioned as a stepping stone to her thwarted attempt to attend McGill University as a medical student. When reading these early sections, it can feel as if they’re delaying Rothman from getting to the meat of her story, yet simultaneously wanting her to slow down and explore the world’s she’s creating.

Characters other than Agnes are given short shrift. Her sister Laure is sketched broadly, so when Laure’s marriage or her medical problems draw her back into Agnes’ story, it’s hard to care about what happens to her. Agnes’ obsession with a former student of her father’s is equally hard to understand.

Relationships between characters are ill established or based on contradictory information, diluting any effect from what clearly should be important scenes and character moments. It requires too much time or flipping back to recall when a relationship became so testy or so familiar.

The love story Rothman introduces late between Agnes and her assistant pops up out of the blue, even including a digression into Agnes’ discovery of auto-eroticism, which stands apart jarringly from the rest of the novel.

The mystery that seems to set the tone for the novel and seems to serve Agnes’ raison d’etre – her father’s disappearance and possible crime – is wrapped up as an afterthought, no real answers given and Agnes (along with the reader) not particularly caring about the resolution.

These flaws are a shame. At times, Rothman shows a deft hand at drawing you into a scene. Agnes’ childhood leaves you wanting more, as does her time organizing the medical museum. Unfortunately, Rothman doesn’t trust her instincts and let you spend time there.

Ultimately, The Heart Specialist comes across as an outline of a larger, more complete and more interesting novel, as if Rothman had written key scenes and then neglected to go back and fill in the missing pieces and transitions.

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