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?’
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
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
‘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