Literary Criticism and Significance
Oxygen is Carol Cassella’s first novel, and it has enjoyed enthusiastic commercial and critical attention. Cassella’s tale of an anesthesiologist who is forced to reevaluate her life while facing a malpractice lawsuit earned a nomination for the Washington State Book Award in 2009, which recognizes the works of writers from the state of Washington. Cassella’s debut novel went on to become a national bestseller. Although Oxygen did not receive widespread critical attention, readers tend to comment on Cassella’s realistic portrayal of the medical profession as well as her unusual plotting.
Oxygen has been compared to Jodi Picoult’s work, although it is quite unlike Picoult’s thrillers. Like Picout’s writing, Cassella’s Oxygen features many twists and turns, not the least of which is a final twist that ends the story and seems to change the nature of the novel. Oxygen begins as an insightful legal thriller before transforming into an introspective exploration of a professional’s life in contemporary America. However, as Robin Vidimos of The Denver Post points out, the novel ends as a “finely crafted mystery, as well as a sparkling literary work.” The question of what Jolene Jenson’s death should mean in a legal, professional, and personal context slowly becomes a question of “who killed Jolene Jenson?” The switch makes for a stirring conclusion, though not one that undermines the value of the work. Vidimos’ suggestion that Oxygen be approached as a literary work is due to Cassella’s balance between intelligent plotting and insightful character development.
Writing for the Seattle PI, John Marshall characterizes Cassella’s work as a
riveting look at the challenges of medical care today. She also captures the reality of the physician’s life—different from what you get on TV.
Cassella’s work stands out for its realistic depiction of medical practice. Cassella is herself a practicing anesthesiologist who lives in Seattle. Despite these similarities, Oxygen is not a memoir.
Though a debut, Oxygen is a strong representation of Cassella’s work to date. Her second novel, Healer: A Novel, also tells the story of a young female doctor. This time, Cassella’s heroine is married but facing financial ruin—a premise that more strongly recalls Marie’s sister Lori. Although her protagonist is a professional, Cassella continues to explore the intricacies of family relationships in contemporary America.