4 out of 4 stars
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The Surgeon’s Wife, the latest outing by the prolific physician-turned-author William H. Coles, opens with a tense scene: respected surgeon Clayton Otherson makes a devastating surgical error, and his protégé Mike Boudreaux is tasked with difficult decisions about how to protect both patients’ lives and his mentor’s considerable pride. And as difficult as this is, Mike’s position only becomes more complicated by personal entanglements when he finds himself drawn to Clayton’s wife and when the troubled daughter of an old friend becomes Clayton’s patient. Coles weaves together these combustible components to build to a dramatic and impactful conclusion.
The medical intrigue is especially deftly handled. Coles has an excellent touch for giving us an insider’s view of hospital politics and of the controversies around surgical procedures for obese patients, without bogging us down in details that would be difficult for non-specialists to follow. The portrait of a world where surgeons’ egos, hospital finances, and the well-being and safety of patients jostle for primacy is well-crafted indeed, creating a gripping backdrop for the personal dramas. The distinctively New Orleans setting, meanwhile, adds specific color, from the high society world of the Othersons to Mike’s Cajun fortune-telling mother. One of Coles’s strengths is his ability to shape these worlds believably, taking us behind doors that, depending on our own backgrounds, might normally be closed to us.
The success of the various personal dramas is mixed, however. Mike, ostensibly the central character, remains somewhat opaque. He is faced with an almost Oedipal crisis. Clayton has been a kind of father figure to the fatherless Mike, nurturing his career, shaping him into the man and surgeon he is, and the novel presents a doubly Oedipal crisis: Mike has the power to destroy his father-figure and he is in love with the father-figure’s wife (albeit not his own mother!). We don’t, however, get a compelling sense of the psychological distress we might expect to attend this situation. As a literary set-up, it’s incredibly promising, and Coles’s characters act out their roles in satisfying ways, but there is unexplored territory here in terms of going into the world of Mike’s mind. Clayton is the closest thing to a father he’s ever had, and in both the professional and the personal world he is in positions where his actions might be construed as betrayal. I’d like to know a great deal more about how that feels for him.
We have a somewhat stronger feel, I think, for the titular figure’s internal world. It is not clear, however, why the novel has the title it does: although the title makes fairly clear from the outset the type of role she will have, Catherine becomes central only partway through the novel, and it is still Mike’s story we are following. Is the suggestion therefore that Mike’s professional decisions are guided by his feelings for Catherine? This does not seem to be the case: his professional decisions do seem solidly grounded in issues of ethics and professional loyalties, without requiring his relationship with Catherine to enter the picture. The title sets up expectations and leaves unanswered questions.
Despite these caveats, I rate this book as 4 out of 4 stars. It is a well-written novel, especially strong in its use of dialogue and pacing, with only a few editing glitches remaining (mainly around the use of French terms). It’s a compelling page-turner that will keep many readers eagerly awaiting the next development.
The Surgeon's Wife
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