Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti
[Note that Woman Doctor also uses the same cover illustration]
[Note that Woman Doctor also uses the same cover illustration]
Young and extremely pretty Dr. Alison Clay had come to Britt Island because aging Dr. Ben needed her. With an exciting new life awaiting her back in the city, it wasn’t part of her plan to stay more than three weeks. Then Dr. Alison was caught up in a hurricane of emotions, and she began to discover that a woman’s heart makes its own plans …
“What happened to your sense of humor? Was it bottled in formaldehyde along with someone’s cut-out appendix?”
“I’ve been doctoring for thirty-six years and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of patients I honestly felt could be helped by going somewhere like Boston.”
“What did you get your M.D. in? Sadism?”
“Did Alison pull a boob?”
“Dr. Bond, did you specialize in meddling?”
“We didn’t exactly acquire our medical degrees through a correspondence school, you know.”
“Mr. Kirby knows from nothing, unless it’s bottled, canned, or on draft.”
Alison Clay is a 26-year-old doctor returning home to Britt Island and her uncle Dr. Ben, the island GP. He lives with his sister, and the pair raised Alison—and are still caring for Alison’s younger brother and sister—after her parents died. (These VNRN gals are beginning to feel as cursed as Disney heroines.) It’s been three years since Alison has been back home, but Dr. Ben had written that he’s planning on taking a vacation, so she agreed to fill in for him. What she hasn’t told him is that she’s staying only three weeks, after which she’ll return to a fancy-pants practice in the city with the haughty Dr. Erica Stacy and leave another doctor she has arranged ahead of time in her stead. It turns out that Dr. Ben hasn’t been entirely honest, either; he’s planning to be gone for six months! But when she tells him that she’s only temporary and that the nice Dr. Hale is waiting in the wings, he cancels his vacation and goes all grumpy. It’s not clear to me why she stays on at that point, but she does.
Another doctor, Nathan Bond, lives on the mainland nearby and also works on the island a couple days a week. Wouldn’t you just know it, he turns out to be the same man whom she’d insulted when they both had stopped at a drawbridge outside of town. It turns out that Dr. Alison has a bit of a temper, encouraged by condescending behavior from her fellow trainees during the eight years of her training. Actually, this seems to serve her in good stead: When she meets a patient who has been paralyzed in a car accident and is being over-coddled by his grandmother into believing that he can never walk again, she lets him have it. “ ‘Jim Britt,’ Alison addressed the man on the bed, ‘You’re a disgusting sight.’ ” Out on another case, where a 12-year-old boy is in need of an emergency tracheotomy and his drunk father is getting in the way, she tells the gentleman who brought her there to give the father a bottle of whisky—or hit him over the head with it. As she coolly sets out the tools for the procedure, the woman holding the flashlight professes feeling like she is going to faint. “You do, and I’ll personally ram that flashlight down your throat,” Alison replies. A bit harsh, perhaps, but if Alison is a bit cut-throat in her dealings with Dr. Ben, Nathan, and even her friends and patients, it works: The boy’s life is saved by her brilliant work, and the paralyzed man agrees to check into a ten-week program in Maine, where “they’ve made great strides in physiotherapy,” says Alison, and we can only hope that the pun was unintended.
Drs. Clay and Bond cross paths on Alison’s first night on the island at a house call, when he was summoned after the patient realized, too late to call her off, that it was the female Dr. Clay who was en route to their aid. Alison does not respond well, as is her disposition, when Nathan offers to split the fee. “I’ve had my fill of men like you,” she says, though it must be confessed that Dr. Bond has not said much more than hello. “When you’re not being patronizing, you’re flexing your muscles or beating your manly chest trying to convince people that the space between your ears serves for more than keeping the two apart.” Ouch. Naturally, it isn’t ten minutes before Nathan is thinking, “Why of all women did he have to fall in love with Alison Clay? She was aloof, self-sufficient, and possessed other qualities that he had always despised in women.” First of all, I wasn’t aware that being self-sufficient was a bad thing. Secondly, I’m hoping, but not confident, that the qualities he despises in women are the same qualities he despises in men. Lastly, why would anyone fall in love with someone who is repeatedly nasty and whom they don’t seem to like very much? (When she asks him, “You don’t like me much, do you?” he answers, “You haven’t given me any reason”—and then promptly kisses her.) This is a VNRN, after all, where stranger things have happened.
Alison soon decides that she will stay with Dr. Ben for the full six months so he can leave on his vacation after all, but it seems she’s doing it more out of guilt than anything else and is hoping to get back to Dr. Stacy’s practice before her place there is filled by someone else. But Dr. Ben has other hopes: He confesses to Nathan that he planned this “vacation” so as to lure Alison away from Dr. Stacy, as “being associated with her would be no asset.” Dr. Stacy proves her reputation when Alison telephones to say she’s staying until May. “What is there to handling an island practice? All one needs is a sympathetic ear and a jar full of aspirins,” snipes Dr. Stacy. “This is where your future is, not in some backwash island. What kind of medicine can you possibly practice there? Bellyaches and pregnancies are no challenge. The island grannies have been handling those for generations.” I felt a little uneasy that the only other woman doctor in the book is set up as a bad egg.
Then Dr. Alison, driving out during a winter storm, skids on ice and crashes her car on the edge of a cliff. She’s teetering there, unable to escape, and slowly freezing. Will she be found before she dies of hypothermia or plummets into the ocean? Will she come to her senses and abandon Dr. Stacy? Will she accept Dr. Ben’s job offer? Will she marry Nathan? You can probably guess the answers to these questions, but the wrap-up isn’t as satisfying as it could be. Alison has been defensive and shouldering a large chip through the entire book, but at the end everything is magically washed away, apparently during a brief interchange with Nathan, who asks her, “Why must you regard every little consideration as a personal slur on your medical ability?” He goes on, “My father was seriously ill only twice in his life and both times he wouldn’t have any other doctor but my mother. Yet from the day they were married to the day he died, he never let her take one night call. Do you think that was because he lacked confidence in her medical ability?” So after they are united, he tells her, “Once we’re married, you’ll take no night calls,” and Alison “meekly” answers, “Yes, Doctor,” her neurosis apparently completely resolved. If she can’t tolerate any aspersions on her medical ability, she’s A-OK with chauvinism masquerading as chivalry.
Overall, this is a nice story. The book spends most of its time chronicling Alison’s dealings with her younger brother and sister, her friends on the island, and her growing patient population, and these are enjoyable, amusing anecdotes. Alison is a feisty character, and other peripheral characters have lots to offer as well. (One character, a novelist, is a fount of zippy one-liners, to wit: “Even at the risk of destroying some beautiful image you might have of us Norberts, I must confess that we still have an ample supply of vermouth.”) The main drawback to this book is a regular disregard for sense and logic. Alison is mildly anxious about her brother’s relationship with Mrs. Norbert, but it’s ridiculously obvious that the boy is secretly studying acting with her. Then Alison decides that Dr. Ben and Nathan had shown “good medical judgment” in sending a patient with an abdominal mass to the local hospital when she’d advocated for a big-city specialist. The X-ray had shown a perfectly normal appendix, so Alison had been rightly concerned about colon cancer—hence her desire for the specialist—but the local surgeon endorsed by the male medics uncovers an abscess from a perforated appendix. It’s clear that neither Ben nor Nathan had wanted to accept a diagnosis of cancer: “Both of them were grasping at anything that would point to a ruptured appendix that had sealed itself off, rather than a carcinoma.” That they were correct is not good medical judgment, it’s luck, and Alison’s vow to “re-evaluate” her medical decisions is unfounded, possibly even dangerous to her patients. And, of course, Alison’s apparent transformation at the end is either miraculous or a mirage. But on the whole, though these flaws bring the book down slightly, they by no means ruin it, and Island Doctor is easily worth reading.