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The Doctor’s House by Ann Beattie




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Family Voices

Ann Beattie continues her pattern of fine novels with her latest, The Doctor’s House. Her loyal readers have counted on Beattie’s skill in presenting characters, setting, emotion and plot with an absorbing writing style that allows pages to turn easily, and some sadness to pass once the book is finished. Beattie begins The Doctor’s House with the voice of Nina, the Doctor’s daughter. Nina is a widow and works as a copy editor. We begin to glimpse family dynamics from her point of view: a close relationship with brother, Andrew, whose compulsive sexual escapades both attract and repel Nina; a distant and strained relationship with her alcoholic mother; girlfriend relationships that are usually linked to Andrew; and the impact of her father, the Doctor on all aspects of her life. The second voice comes from the Doctor’s wife, mother of Nina and Andrew. We learn in the few pages of her narrative that she married the Doctor on the rebound, and knew more about his sexual infidelity than Nina thought she did. We learn more about her own past, and the impact of the Doctor on her life. Our impression of her as a mother, that seemed easily judged from Nina’s perspective, changes when we hear her own point of view. The final narrator is Andrew. While our impressions of him are well-formed from the narratives of Nina and her mother, his own voice amends and adjusts our perceptions. I liked him more at certain times and less at others when I read this section of the book. The voice and impact that looms over the whole book and narrative is the one who doesn’t get to narrate: Frank, the Doctor. Here’s an excerpt that captures the character of the doctor, and his relationship with his son, daughter and wife, from Andrew’s narrative:

“I pushed back the covers. I tried to appear sleepier than I was/
As I passed him, head down, he put a hand on my shoulder. He turned on the overhead light with his other hand and looked into my face. What could he have seen, except my bloodshot eyes? He put the light out. I was shaking, sure that he knew. I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I even went to the toilet, which I did not need to use. The seat was still up. I was about to put it down and sit on it for a few seconds before flushing when I heard my father’s voice. ‘Is that where you keep it?’ he said from the other side of the door.
 ‘Keep what?’ I managed. I kept it in his workoom, in the back of a Brillo box thick with dust. I looked over my shoulder, realizing I hadn’t locked the door.
He opened the door and walked in. ‘Marijuana,’ he said. ‘Or am I to believe that you keep it in your mother’s room?’
I stared at him. He was not going to like any answer I gave him.
 ‘You think you’re smart, don’t you?’ he said/
Yes or no. Neither answer would do.
 ‘You probably think that because your mother drinks, it’s all right to smoke marijuana,’ he said. ‘Actually, marijuana itself is not so bad. It’s useful with glaucoma patients. For relief of nausea, with some illnesses. There’s even the suggestion that it should be legalized.’
Nothing to say. Nothing at all.
 ‘Your mother tells me that you and your sister enjoy Playboy,’ he said. ‘Isn’t that an unusual magazine to be looking at with your sister? You know, I had wanted to keep my magazines hidden from Mom.’
 ‘We were looking at the cartoons,’ I said.
 ‘Is that right? Is that what the doctor should believe?’ He went right on, not waiting for an answer. He said: ‘Your mother drinking, you smoking marijuana – it has a smell, you know, that clings to you just like cigarette smoke. A doctor, with two people abusing substances in his own house. What does your sister do, if I may ask? I would presume that she does exactly what her brother does, since he is the only person who exists in her world.’
I looked at the floor.
 ‘I’m glad you’re not continuing to lie to me. I do take note of that,’ he said. Then he said: ‘How many times have you smoked marijuana?’
 ‘A few times,’ I said. I was only lying by a half a dozen times.
 A few times,’ he repeated slowly. ‘The doctor’s son has smoked marijuana a few times. His wife drinks approximately one third of a bottle of scotch and one bottle of tine a day. His daughter … but we don’t know about her. She may even be the Miss Goody Two-Shoes she appears to be, though somehow I doubt that. I think she has a secret, and that’s why she’s so condescending toward her parents. Ready to become an informant any day now. Ready to go to the authorities, as they’re called, about the doctor’s family.’”

Ann Beattie tells great stories, and in The Doctor’s House, readers are rewarded with a story from three points of view, each more interesting than the one before it.

Steve Hopkins, March 20, 2002


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