The Doctor's Daughter
Alice Brill wakes up one morning with the feeling that something is “terribly wrong,” and the sensation of dread behind her breastbone remains with her for most of the novel. Alice’s journey of self-revelation forces her to reexamine her past, rethink her present, and reenvision her future. While Alice tries to laugh off what she labels a midlife crisis, her friend Violet, always the first to suggest counseling, says “This is the crossroads, kiddo, when you’re looking back at all the mistakes you made, and ahead, well, ahead to old age and death.” The novel tells Alice’s story as she grapples with the sorrow of a crumbling marriage, a father slipping into dementia, a wayward son, a career change, and questions she needs to ask and answer about her childhood and the parents she idolized; she is indeed at a crossroads.
What makes Alice a compelling character is that she is ordinary, and as an ordinary woman, she determines her identity and her view of the world through her relationships. She must look at herself in the various roles she played or plays: daughter, wife, mother, friend, professional. As she examines her relationships with all the people in her life, she comes to learn about herself, yet that knowledge is neither profound nor life-changing. The first-person narrative reminds the reader of Alice’s ordinariness by detailing the minutiae of her life, from spring housecleaning to getting a mammogram. The novel avoids becoming mundane by virtue of its wit and descriptions of everyday life that are so recognizable, they are personal. Alice says that what first drew her to write fiction was “so I could get inside someone else’s psyche, someone else’s experience, even if I had to seek them out in my imagination.” The story offers Alice’s psyche to the reader.
The first thing that Alice reveals is her new interest in her mother, Helen Brill, who had died of cancer when Alice was in graduate school. A privileged wife of a successful Manhattan surgeon, Helen wrote poetry. Alice feels that her father indulged this hobby of her mother, not taking her seriously, despite her publishing success. Alice looks carefully at the poetry and an accordion file of her mother’s papers to determine if her mother had led some other lifewhich is perhaps the source of her feeling of dread. The revelations of this search change Alice’s perception of the idealized relationship she felt her parents had, that the waltzing in the kitchen may not have been symbolic of the relationship at all.
The dominant dramatic string in the novel is the disintegration of Alice’s marriage. The arguments with her husband, Everett (Ev), and their lack of intimacy reach a crisis point over a missing paperweight and their youngest son, Scott. Alice has indulged Scott, who may or may not be involved in drugs but has a history of various troubles. Alice and Everett spar over who is to blame for Scott’s situation. In the instance of the paperweight, Alice covers for Scott, who took it one day when he came to get some money from his mother. When the paperweight reappears, Everett discovers Alice’s deception, and an argument sends him down the hall, to sleep in the boys’ old bedroom. A few weeks of chilly civility end in another argument, and Ev moves out.
This disruption forces Alice to review her relationship with Ev and try to figure out why a once passionate and compatible relationship has languished. As she looks back over their meeting, in a graduate school writing program, to their shared frustrations as writers unable to write, she critiques a relationship that she seems to think may never have been as loving and close as the one she is missing, although what she describes is a strong marriage full of tenderness and strife. Her voice and descriptions are in conflict with the relationship she is describing. This is one of the failings of the story....
(The entire section is 1589 words.)