Perhaps I'm in danger of becoming one of those cynical single urbanites, but whenever I pick up a novel that starts out with a seemingly perfect couple and their seemingly perfect children, living in a seemingly perfect neighborhood, I want to rub my hands together with glee. You just KNOW it's all going downhill from there. But even this cynical urbanite was surprised by the depths to which Elizabeth Brundage will go with her characters. And THE DOCTOR'S WIFE is all the better for it. Note here: if your book club has gotten too genteel lately and is in need of a good cage-rattling, this is just the novel to do it.
THE DOCTOR'S WIFE is set in upstate New York --- civil, picturesque, well-mannered upstate New York --- and centers on Michael and Annie Knowles, the kind of couple that sits around listening to NPR's soothing, well-modulated liberal voices on Sunday mornings while doing the crossword in the Times; the smell of their toasted designer bagels mingling with the scent of their designer coffee, while their perfect children in Gap chic are playing nearby before rushing off to soccer and other mainstays of suburban life. Michael is a young, extremely busy and successful OB/GYN at a prominent hospital; Annie is a Miss Porter's School-educated college professor who teaches creative writing (naturally). But wait --- is that a rat we smell amidst the Starbucks?
Annie is growing bored being "the doctor's wife," particularly since the Good Doctor is never around. It appears that Doc's bell is being rung these days by Celina James, an old flame who appeals to much more than Michael's libido --- she has a good-sized socio-political agenda wrapped up in the shape of her Women's Health Clinic, the town's only provider of abortions. Celina enlists Michael to help her at the Clinic, and soon Michael's already-limited free time from the hospital is being spent at Celina's clinic. There are no sparks between them these days except professional ones, but clearly he prefers the energy of Celina to Annie's world.
Unfortunately for Michael, the guy who IS around for Annie just happens to be Tall, Brooding, Successful-yet-Misunderstood Suffering Artist-turned-Art-Professor Simon Haas. Never mind that Simon himself is married to the beautiful Lydia Haas, his longtime muse, though she has enough skeletons in her closet to populate a Grateful Dead concert. When the Knowles family starts getting all kinds of anonymous threats, it's not clear at first where they're coming from or why --- are they the work of the Right-Wing Extremists running around town protesting Michael's moonlighting gig, or are these more personal in nature?
What evolves is a novel of psychological suspense that is edgy and compelling. Brundage's sense of plot and timing is impeccable, and she really knows how to hook a reader from the very first chapter. The action starts with a kidnapping and it does not let up from there. The story unfolds with many of the twists coming out of the past.
While her characters were multi-faceted, complex and memorable --- particularly the Haas family --- I confess to being ultimately disappointed in the somewhat black-and-white view she took on the abortion issue. The way the characters are depicted, everyone who feels abortion is wrong is not only half-crazy but leans so far to the "Religious Right" that they're in danger of falling over. Still, enough time and devotion are spent developing all of the primary characters to keep this from being overwhelmingly negative. In fact, even the two-dimensional characters provide ample fodder for discussion.
Surprisingly, this is Brundage's first novel and is sure to be a tough act to follow --- although I for one will be looking forward to seeing her try. Full of suspense, memorable characters and thought-provoking issues, I can pretty much guarantee that THE DOCTOR'S WIFE will be making its rounds for a long time to come.
--- Reviewed by Lourdes Orive