Review: The Heart Specialist by Claire Holden Rothman

I looked briefly up from my notes. I was surrounded by hearts, sectioned and preserved. Hearts with holes. Hearts with leaking valves or thickened walls. Hearts with narrow or transposed aortas. I closed my eyes.

Summary. The Heart Specialist is the story of Agnes White, a young woman who becomes one of the first female doctors in Canada in the early 1900s. It’s inspired by Maude Abbott’s career, who was in fact one of Canada’s first female physicians. The book follows Agnes from her childhood in the 1870s to after the end of World War I in 1919. Agnes’s father was a highly esteemed doctor who, because of a scandal, left his family in the middle of the night and disappeared when Agnes was only 5. Her mother was pregnant with her younger sister, Laure, and died not long after giving birth, leaving Agness and Laure to be raised by their maternal grandmother.

Agnes’s life is shaped by the ghost of her father and she follows his footsteps into the field of medicine. She has a passion for it and is a brilliant student, but it is difficult gaining access to the appropriate education, let alone respect once she manages to get there. Throughout it all, the absence of her father is deeply felt and when she meets Dr. Howlett, an esteemed physician whom her father mentored, she latches on to this last connection she has to him.

As the years pass, Agnes is slowly recognized for her work and she repeatedly shows herself to be an excellent doctor and student of the human body. She has a profound understanding of the heart in particular and while the organ has been the focus of her studies, its metaphorical counterpart seems to remain almost a complete mystery to her up until the end.

Reaction. The tone of this novel is bittersweet. We do see Agnes advance in her career and eventually gain the respect she deserves, but her path to that end is littered with difficulties, many having to do with her relationships (or lack thereof) with others. There is such an overwhelming sense of missed opportunity in this novel and of wasted time; not only with Agnes, but with many of the characters—Laure, Jakob, Miss Skerry, and others. Though as Miss Skerry wisely points out:

“You must have learned by now, Agnes, that it’s not possible to judge a life from the outside,” she said. Her voice had an edge. “One inevitably gets it wrong.”

As our main character and narrator, we feel this the most strongly though with Agnes. The book covers such a broad period of her life and in the end, while she has found her place professionally and has just begun to finally find her footing emotionally in her personal life, the entirety of it has a sense of tragedy or lacking to it. There is so much loneliness over the years and her focus often blinded her to all else.

Though Agnes herself expresses much the same sentiment, she does so at a relatively early point in her journey, on page 100, a couple of years after having graduated from medical school:

I had achieved my dream, but what had it brought? Wealth? I glanced at my dress, worn too many days now without washing, and at the patched cloak bunched under my arm. Renown? I’d been a celebrity in my student days, but since then I might as well have died. Happiness? My eyes pricked with tears. The day I received my degree I thought my life would be completely altered. I had entered the forbidden land of my father. Nothing would ever be the same. But in truth nothing happened. I remained plain old Agnes White, no richer or more famous or happier than before.

For the most part I found Agnes to be a strong narrator and I liked her voice in the story, but her attachment and worship of Dr. Howlett became difficult to bear as she grows older, and it made me think less of her at times. We do clearly see what he represents in her life though, and Rothman does a good job of making us feel her desperation, her passionate desire for some type of connection to her father, a man who has become larger than life in her mind and whose absence has more of an effect that I’m sure his presence ever would have.

The most aching and bittersweet regret I felt was most definitely over her relationship with Jakob, her assistant. While she was utterly blind, he let so much time slip away instead of being direct and forcing her to realize what was right in front of her. There is such starkness to the story, though there were also times with of angst and complications. It is what I would call a quiet story, but it is nonetheless engaging and I read the last hundred pages or so in one sitting even though I had meant to put the book down and finish it later.

We are given a sense of closure at the end of The Heart Specialist, for which I was grateful, but I was also impressed by how the end also in many ways felt like a beginning to something else. Much happens in the final section—it is something of an emotional whirlwind—but we’re then given a chance to catch our breath and see the new landscape and where things have now settled. We’re with Agnes for only her first few steps as she moves forward, but this gives the ending a feeling of promise, of a new direction for her. In many ways, it’s happier than any other part of the book; I felt like finally—finally—Agnes had woken up to so many things, and instead of starting on a new page, she’s about to start on a whole new book.

One of My Favorite Quotes:

Happiness is a strange thing. It is something I tend to recognize only after it has passed, when I realize I miss it.

Rating: B-
The Heart Specialist by Claire Holden Rothman
June 7th 2011 by Soho Press
Historical Fiction 
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  1. […] Fiction Vixen reviews The Heart Specialist (Claire Holden Rothman) 24 Oct 2011 by Meryl Howsam, No Comments » A review of The Heart Specialist appears in the Fiction Vixen Book Reviews blog!  “There is such starkness to the story… it is engaging and I read the last hundred pages or so in one sitting even though I had meant to put the book down and finish it later. Read the rest of the review here! […]