The structure of The Doctor’s House is seemingly simple. Instead of intertwining the stories and points of view of the characters simultaneously, as in real life, the novel has three separate first-person narrators: Nina, Andrew, and their mother. In each case, the story offers a personal insight into the individual as well as into other members of the family, with particular focus on the demoniac figure of their tyrannical, abusive father and husband, Frank, “the doctor.” In this way, the story of a family life and its members is both directly shown through personal narration and indirectly reflected in other members’ narratives. This technique actively involves the reader in the process of decoding the characters’ behaviors and thinking processes, which are unusual, deranged, and anomalous. Their thinking processes and their actions, as well as their reactions to the world around them, reveal their characters. What they do not, cannot, or will not see about themselves is scrutinized and depicted by the other two narrators.
Growing up neglected and lonely within a dysfunctional family, with an alcoholic mother and a cold, cruel father, the siblings develop a strong, codependent attachment to each other that carries into adulthood. Andrew is the outgoing, charming, selfish user, Nina the introverted, shy, traumatized loner. Nina devotedly (or rather, compulsively) absorbs, one by one, each of Andrew’s numerous relationships, which are forever “on the rocks.” She is passive, especially when it comes to her own life, but she tries to help others. While she may be her own worst enemy, her father and brother are actively destructive to others.
The first part of the book is told in Nina’s voice, depicting her empty, depressing life following her young husband’s tragic death in a car accident. Her brother’s life, a string of romantic-sexual conquests, replaces her own. Her life is so empty that listening to the messages on her answering machine counts as an event. Apart from reliving the memories of her gregarious, big, and cuddly husband, Mac, and her boring, homebound job, Nina’s days are filled almost solely with her brother’s visits to discuss his problems. Occasionally, one of his deserted women calls Nina to find out where Andrew has gone after dropping her or to tell about the abortions he has necessitated. Those women—their names, idiosyncrasies, and stories—float in Nina’s memory like icebergs. She does not know all of them, but remembers random details and events. The women befriend her in order to come closer to Andrew; on occasion Nina even baby-sits for them.
Since childhood Nina was endowed with the analytical mind, sharp insight, and imagination of a writer. Ignored by her self- absorbed mother, scorned and belittled by her father, and living in constant terror of his sadomasochistic punishments, Nina’s talent for creative writing wilted before it ever developed, ending in an unfulfilling job as a freelance copy editor. However, her mind still has remnants of a sense for the story. She is a thwarted writer. The bits and pieces of her brother’s love affairs in Nina’s mind are like cut- outs for a multitoned grey-black, sometimes blood red, patchwork. If human psychology is not of interest to the reader, there is not much in Nina’s life to make her story entertaining. She is aware that she has “mourned away” her life while her brother “provided cheap thrills.” The drudgery of her everyday existence is so well depicted that it flows onto the reader.
The second narrative belongs to Mother. It is the most interesting because it offers a sharp evaluation of her husband’s and children’s faults as well as the story of her married life. It presents an exciting, colorful sketch of the era of World War II, Vice President Richard Nixon’s bribery scandal, Sputnik, the Cold War, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “political use” of his shoe. The emphasis, however, is on the woman’s world, its social mores and lifestyles. It is a world where a mother does not raise her daughter but rushes her into an early marriage (as her mother had done with her) in the hope of marrying her “well” (to a good profession, not a good man). It shows a mother putting all of her petit bourgeois dreams into designing her daughter’s room, ignoring and forgetting in the process both her husband’s and daughter’s needs and wishes while she is living out her own unfulfilled desires.
Mother confides that, in her youth, her dream was to become a singer like Billy Holiday, a woman of style and...
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