Hilma Wolitzer The Doctor's Daughter

ISBN 13: 9780786285563

The Doctor's Daughter

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9780786285563: The Doctor's Daughter
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In her first work of fiction in more than a decade, award-winning novelist Hilma Wolitzer brilliantly renders the intimate details of ordinary life and exposes a host of hidden truths. The Doctor’s Daughter is a haunting portrait of a woman coming to terms with her family history and the fallibility of memory.

One morning, Alice Brill awakes with a sudden awareness that something is wrong. There’s a hollowness in her chest, and a sensation of dread that she can’t identify or shake. Was it something she’s done, or forgotten to do? As she scours her mind for the source of her unease, she confronts an array of disturbing possibilities.

First, there is her marriage, a once vibrant relationship that now languishes stasis. Then there’s her idle, misdirected younger son, who always needs bailing out of some difficulty. Or perhaps Alice’s trepidation is caused by the loss of her career as an editor at a large publishing house, and the new path she’s paved for herself as a freelance book doctor. Or it might be the real doctor in her life: her father. Formerly one of New York’s top surgeons, he now rests in a nursing home, his mind gripped by dementia. And the Eden that was Alice’s childhood–the material benefits and reflected glory of being a successful doctor’s daughter, the romance of her parents’ famously perfect marriage–makes her own domestic life seem fatally flawed.

While struggling to find the root of her restlessness, Alice is buoyed by her discovery of a talented new writer, a man who works by day as a machinist in Michigan. Soon their interactions and feelings intensify, and Alice realizes that the mystery she’s been trying to solve lies not in the present, as she had assumed, but in the past–and in the secrets of a marriage that was never as perfect as it appeared.

Like the best works of Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, and Gail Godwin, The Doctor’s Daughter is private yet universal, luminous and revelatory–and marks the reemergence of a singular talent in American writing.

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About the Author:

Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels, including Hearts, Ending, and Tunnel of Love, as well as the nonfiction book The Company of Writers. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia University. Hilma Wolitzer lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The moment I awoke I knew that something was terribly wrong. I could feel it in that place behind my breastbone, where bad news always slides in like junk mail through a slot. It was there that I first acknowledged my parents would die someday (“Oh, sweetheart, but not for such a long, long time!”); where I knew I was ugly and would never be loved; where I suffered spasms of regret about my marriage and my children, and fear of their deaths and of my own. God knows there were plenty of things wrong in the larger world I could easily have named, and that aroused a similar sense of dread, but whatever was lodged in my chest that April morning was personal, not global. I knew that much, at least.

Was it something I’d done, or forgotten to do? There was a vague suggestion of amnesia, of loss, but when I tried to pin down its source, it proved to be elusive, a dream dissolving in daylight. In fact, I’d had a dream just before waking, but the content was obscured by a kind of white scrim. The only thing I could remember was the whiteness. And I couldn’t discuss any of this with Everett—we’d quarreled again the night before and were being stonily polite. And what if my awful feeling turned out to be about him?

So I put it all aside while we ate breakfast, chaperoned by CNN and the Times, and chatted about Iraq and the weather and the eggs on our plates. I told myself that this was what long-married people do, even when things are good between them. Then I had a flash of my parents in their nightclothes, slow-dancing to the radio in their Riverdale kitchen.

After Ev left for work, I grabbed my bag and left the apartment, too. I had to go to the bank, and then I was going to buy a sandwich and sit near the East River to read manuscripts. Maybe the bank would be my last stop—it wasn’t safe to walk around this crazy city with that much money.

Our doorman and the doorman from the building next door were outside in the sunlight, taking a breather from the bell jars of their lobbies. It must have rained the night before; the drying pavement gave off that sour-sweet musk I love, and up and down York Avenue, the ginkgo and honey locusts were suddenly, lushly budding. At fifty-one and with everything I knew, I was still such a sucker for spring. I probed for that sensitive spot in my chest as I walked, almost jogged, along in my jeans and Reeboks, outpacing kids in business suits, and it seemed diminished by then, practically gone. It probably really was only the residue of a bad dream.

Outside Sloan-Kettering, patients tethered to their IVs were smoking, the way my girlfriends and I used to smoke near our high school, looking furtive and defiant at once. My father drove by in his Lincoln one day and caught me. “Alice!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Oh, shit,” I muttered, feeling my face and neck blotch, that curse of redheads. I dropped the cigarette—a stylish, mentholated Kool—and tried to make a run for it. But he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the car, where he bellowed and shook me, while my friends gaped at us through the tinted windows as if we were fighting fish in an aquarium.

It was the worst thing I could have done; my father was a surgeon, the venerated chief of surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. He drove me directly there that day, and waved lurid photographs of cancerous lungs in my face, and made me look through his microscope at cells gone amok, like adolescent girls.

That wasn’t the first time I’d disappointed him. I wasn’t a boy, to begin with; I wasn’t even the next best thing, a girl with an aptitude for science. And I didn’t look like my mother. That day in the lab, I gravely promised him I’d never smoke again. “Daddy, I won’t, I swear,” I said. “I don’t even like it.” I think I even coughed a few times, for dramatic effect. Sin upon sin. In truth, I loved smoking, the deliciously acrid taste and how worldly I thought I looked with a cigarette drooping from my ragged, ink-stained fingers.

I was fifteen years old then and I still called him Daddy. I never stopped calling him that. And my Mother was “Mother,” always, like the benevolent queen in the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Goose Girl,” which she often read to me at bedtime. I’m still haunted by its recurring lament:

Alas! Queen’s daughter, there thou gangest.

If thy mother knew thy fate,

Her heart would break with grief so great.

As a child, I didn’t really get all that archaic usage, or other words in the story, like cambric and knacker. But listening to my mother read “The Goose Girl” aloud as she lay next to me at night initiated my lifelong romance with language. The plot was electrifying, with its drama of switched identities, talking drops of blood, and a decapitated horse’s head (also verbal), more than a century before Mario Puzo. And the message, that children, especially girls, are responsible for their mothers’ happiness, was profound and unsettling. I became determined never to break my mother’s heart, any more than I would break her back by inadvertently stepping on a sidewalk crack. And I meant to keep my promise to my father about not smoking again.

Passing the Mary Manning Walsh home at 71st Street, I thought of him, imprisoned since early winter in that other place, the one he’d always called, with a theatrical shudder, the “Cadillac” of nursing homes. “I’d rather be dead, Alice,” he once said, pointedly, as if he were extracting another, unspoken promise. The Hebrew Home for the Aged isn’t very far from the house where we once lived, although since his confinement my father didn’t remember that proximity or appreciate the sad irony of it. He didn’t remember a lot of things, including me most of the time, a likely source of misery in any grown child’s breast. But somehow I knew it wasn’t the source of mine. Maybe that was because I’d had several months to deal with the gradual death of my father’s personality, a dress rehearsal for the big event.

Occasionally, he would still ask after my mother. “And how is Helen?” was the way he’d put it, a ghost-like version of his old courtly self. The first time he asked, I was so dismayed I couldn’t speak. After that, I tried telling him the truth, but he always received it as fresh, agonizing news, and he’d grieve for a few awful moments before he went blank again. I couldn’t keep putting him, and myself, through that, so I began to simply say, “She’s fine.” But once I saw him flinch when I said it, and I amended my lie to reflect his absence from home. “Getting along as best she can, Daddy,” I said.

“But who’s taking care of her?” he asked, with the perseverance of demented logic.

The worms, I thought, but I said, “Why, I am. And Faye, of course.” And he finally sank back in his wheelchair, assuaged. Faye had been our family’s housekeeper during my childhood—if he could bend time, well, then so could I. As I crossed East End Avenue to enter Carl Schurz Park, I realized that I hadn’t visited my father in almost two weeks. I had to go and see him soon, but not on such a perfect day.

There was the usual pedestrian parade in the park. Runners went by wearing wristbands and earphones. Babies were being pushed in their strollers and the elderly in their wheelchairs, like a fast-forwarded film on the human life cycle. The pigeons paced, as if they’d forgotten they could fly, and dogs circled and sniffed one another while their owners, in a tangle of leashes, exchanged shy, indulgent smiles.

The homeless man who screamed was quietly sunning himself on my favorite bench, so I sat a few benches away, next to a woman absorbed in a paperback. I glanced at the cover, expecting a bodice ripper or a whodunit, but she was reading Proust, in French. Touché. The river glittered and flowed on the periphery of my vision as I took the manuscripts out of my bag. I was sure they would distract me from whatever was worrying me; they always did, even when I knew what was on my mind. There were four new submissions that day, three nonfiction proposals and a few chapters of a novel in progress. I began to read, and quickly set aside, the first three submissions. After all this time, I can usually tell before the end of the first paragraph if a writer has any talent.

My training began in 1974 at the literary publishing house of Grace & Findlay, where I mostly answered the phones, typed and filed for the editors, and read through the slush pile. It was only a summer internship, between Swarthmore and an MFA, and before I knew it some lowly reader at another publisher was going to discover my novel in their slush pile and make me rich and famous. That never happened, though. All I ever received were standard letters of rejection, the ones that say “Thank you for thinking of us, but your manuscript doesn’t meet our needs right now,” with the hidden subtext: This is precisely what we hate. Do try us again when hell freezes over.

A few years later, I joined the enemy, becoming an assistant editor at G&F, and I was still there, in a senior position, last June, when they merged with a multinational communications group and let me go. I understood that my firing was merely a fiscal matter, and I saw it coming, like a storm darkening a radar screen. But I felt shocked and betrayed anyway, even with the generous severance package.

At first I missed everything about my job—the physical place, my colleagues, m...

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