July 2004

Jessa Crispin

fiction

The Doctor's Wife by Elizabeth Brundage

The Doctor's Wife by Elizabeth Brundage is one of the first novels to hinge the plot on an assassination attempt of an abortion doctor. It's an interesting premise, and there's potential to add humanity to a subject fraught with polemics. Instead, Brundage abandons the politics and revels in shoddy research, stereotypes, and terrible writing.

The doctor of the title is Michael Knowles. He's an ob-gyn in upstate New York, content to deliver babies and give Pap smears. But when an old flame, the "ballsy," "tough as nails" Celina approaches him about her newly opened indigent women's health clinic, Michael agrees to start performing abortions there, even though when his child asks him if abortion is murder, he can't say no. Immediately, Michael and Celina are harassed, followed, and threatened. Michael is run off of the road. The clinic is defaced, then bombed, and then an attempt is made on Michael's life. It's at this assassination attempt, which is in the first chapter, that the book goes wrong.

It's difficult to tell if the inaccuracies in the book are from a lack of research, or if she disregarded the research to make the plot work the way she wanted. Regardless, the assassination attempt and the bombing of the clinic are so ludicrous, the book loses all believability. That the violent antiabortion movement is run by Evangelicals is correct, but attacks on the doctors are political, high profile acts, meant to bring attention to the movement. But when they go after Michael, he's drugged and his car is pushed over a cliff to make it look like an accident. Not even this is enough, as he is pulled from the wreckage, a homeless man is put in his place, and Michael is held prisoner. Now, while abortion doctors have been held captive before, never has any real life plot against doctors been quite so convoluted. Nothing about the attempt on his life makes sense. Even worse, when the abortion clinic is bombed, it's done so during work hours. There's a reason why the decades of abortion clinic bombings have not resulted in many deaths; the bombings are done at night or early morning when the clinics are empty. The term "abortion clinic" is misleading, as most women's health clinics provide annual exams, birth control services, and even pre-natal care. No antiabortion movement would risk the lives of women who are pregnant and keeping their children to make a point.

Annie, Michael's wife, is your typical romance novel heroine -- bored housewife, neglected by her husband, not getting enough sex. She teaches at the local college, but she's never seen grading anything, or doing anything job-related other than the occasional lecture. She follows her stereotype nicely and begins an affair with the husband of the woman who kidnaps Michael. That would be Simon Haas. At more than one point, Annie realizes the antiabortion people (you can tell they're bad because they wear sunglasses at night) are following her to her motel meetings with Simon and using this information in their harassment of her family.

The Doctor's Wife quickly falls into what Roger Ebert calls the "Idiot Plot": if all of the characters were not idiots, the plot would fall apart. The characters stop making sense, and at many points throughout the book, if only one person had done something simple and reasonable, instead of confoundingly stupid, there would have been no book.

Idiot Plot Point #1: Annie does not tell Simon, nor does she change her routine. If she had, Simon, who was already aware that his wife Lydia had fallen in with the malevolent preacher (you can tell he's bad because he has a limp), may have figured out Lydia knew about the affair and may wish the Knowles family harm.

Idiot Plot Point #2: When it dawns on Simon that Lydia was involved with Michael's disappearance and the bombing, he asks her to voluntarily commit herself. He genuinely seems surprised when she doesn't. He doesn't love his wife -- the whys of that and her utter insanity are complicated and very boring -- and desperately wants to be rid of her. Instead of turning her into the police, he dreams up this lofty goal.

Idiot Plot Point #3: Once Simon discovers Lydia's involvement, in no way does he bring this to the attention of Annie. He swears he loves her, yet he doesn't try to protect her.

The minor characters don't fare any better. Celina is described as passionate and fearless, yet the moment the clinic is defaced with graffiti, she wants to close, leaving Michael -- a man without convictions -- to convince her to stay open. A mysterious girl who tips Michael off to the harassers and sneaks him a gun wears a jacket with angel wings on the back. Very subtle. The malevolent preacher -- potentially the most interesting character in the book -- disappears, and it doesn't seem unlikely that it's only because Brundage didn't know what to do with him.

The writing itself is readable and pulls you along the plot, but it's littered with phrases so out of touch and so bewildering, the reader is jarred from the book. "His love for her is ripe in his mouth. The fruit has rotted, perhaps." There's "a weight in her chest like a dead squirrel." Every time a car is started, it gives "a lusty roar." When Aerosmith comes on the radio, Annie says, "I didn't know you were into heavy metal." The sex scenes are equally embarrassing. "Her ripe sweet grass"? Annie actually cries after her first sexual encounter with Simon.

The Doctor's Wife would be easily dismissible had Brundage not added abortion as a subplot. Everything else -- the bad writing, the romance novel tendencies, the Idiot Plot -- could be explained away as just another tawdry thriller. But by using controversy to attract attention and attempt some legitimacy, it becomes painfully obvious just how lazy of a writer Brundage is. She makes no attempts to make sense of her book, to tie everything together in a way that is feasible or interesting. Half of the responsibility should fall on the editor's shoulders. After all, how did no one catch "a weight in her chest like a dead squirrel"?

The Doctor's Wife by Elizabeth Brundage
Viking
ISBN: 0670033162
342 Pages