Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Heart Specialist: Claire Holden Rothman

By far one of the most engrossing novels I've read this year, The Heart Specialist is a groundbreaking debut by Claire Holden Rothman who is sure to gain notoriety with her eloquent writing and colorful story-telling. Inspired by one of Montreal's first woman doctors, this novel is a beautiful depiction of the battles fought by women to gain entry into the male-dominated medical field.

Agnes White is a strange child who grows up to be a strange adult. Rather than playing with dolls, she prefers to dissect bugs and animals to study their biology. Agnes and her sister Laure are abandoned by their widower father, left to be raised by their stern grandmother who doesn't know what to do with outrageous Agnes. When Miss Georgiana Skerry is hired to be the girls' governess, Agnes expects opposition, but instead finds an ally in her educated governess. With Miss Skerry's encouragement, Agnes attends school and goes on to earn a college degree, which is no small feat at the turn of the 20th century. Her life becomes a battle of wills as Agnes tries to make a place for herself in the medical community, aligning herself with open-minded allies, fighting every day to prove herself worthy of her degree. While earning herself a reputation as an intelligent heart specialist, Agnes is also conducting her own research into the disappearance of her father who was once a well-respected doctor at McGill College, where Agnes now works as museum curator. Focused on her career and father, Agnes watches as so many of the societal norms for women her age pass by: courtship, marriage, children. Though she meets many eligible bachelors along the way, Agnes has fought so hard to be considered one of them that they hardly see her as feminine at all. It is only after she has been able to lay the mystery of her father to rest that Agnes is finally able to open her heart to the man who has been standing before her all along.

This book feels so much like Little Women. It's sort of angsty and the character of Agnes is so much like Jo March that they could easily be friends. Agnes and Jo are both so determined to have a career that they nearly miss out on love. I felt so breathless throughout this novel, hoping desperately that Agnes would finally open her eyes and let herself love the man who has so obviously adored her from day one. At times it was downright frustrating to watch as the pair stood so close to romance, but unable to close the gap because of social standards that kept either party from being too forward.

There are a lot of layers to this book. Honestly, I couldn't possibly give a proper description of this novel without giving away half the story, and yet, it doesn't feel bogged down. Rothman has woven together a lifetime of intricate details and pulled them together into a tight epic novel that exposes the harsh realities of gender roles while also telling a touching love story. She is a superb story-teller and skilled writer you don't want to miss.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Soho Press

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