Adrienne McDonnell's "The Doctor and the Diva," reviewed by Carolyn See

By Carolyn See
Friday, August 6, 2010


By Adrienne McDonnell

Pamela Dorman/Viking. $26.95 422 pp.

Some novels just naturally enslave you, and this is one of them. "The Doctor and the Diva" (what a frivolous title for such a serious and gripping book!) is a carefully researched period piece, covering the period from 1904 to 1914, set in very respectable Boston, wild and uncharted Trinidad and the operatic community of Florence, Italy. It's about a musically gifted matron, Erika von Kessler, who dreams of running away from her husband, Peter, a prosperous cotton importer, and pursuing a career as a professional opera singer abroad. Peter, although he is aware of his wife's gifts and proud of her singing ability, is utterly oblivious to her longings. His desires point in another direction: He wants a child. But Erika has been unable to conceive, and the couple has already visited several fertility doctors.

Enter a new, young Boston physician, Dr. Ravell, who once saw the beautiful Erika at the funeral of an eminent colleague where she alighted from a shiny black motorcar at twilight during a snowfall in an ermine cloak to sing an aria. The deceased had requested it of her before his death: "When they bury me, I want you to send me up to heaven with that song."

When Peter and Erika visit Ravell, the reader becomes aware that Erika and the doctor will fall in love or, at the very least, have an affair. But the trio, of course, have no knowledge of this, and their tale is like watching three cars converge on an intersection: We know disaster looms, but the drivers aren't so lucky.

Peter, the husband, is virile, strong-willed, exuberant, adventurous, and Erika is very physically involved with him. If asked, she would certainly say she loves him and would certainly say that she wants his child. But she also wants to go to Italy to sing. She cannot see why she shouldn't have everything she wants. That question hasn't come up yet in her life. But by page 14, Ravell has discovered that Peter has no sperm in his semen. Without revealing too much of the plot, we can say that Erika does give birth and that she does escape from Boston to pursue her dream.

In a postscript, McDonnell reveals that Erika and Peter are based on relatives from her husband's side of the family. There was a loving wife who ran away to become an opera singer, an export-import businessman who spent time on a coconut plantation in Trinidad and, yes, a darling little boy lost in the shuffle of divorce, who wrote "heartrending letters . . . from boarding school." The details of the novel -- such as the long coach rides down a Trinidad beach where the sands are firm as pavement -- gets its richness from diaries, clippings and letters. The effectiveness of the narrative comes from the novelist's striking skill. From the very first pages, we are utterly engaged in what's going to happen to these three people -- they become as close to us as family friends. Each has legitimate ambitions and dreams; each is capable of acting with astonishing selfishness and self-interest.

The worldview of this novel is based upon the pleasure principle: The world is so sensuously beautiful -- rivers and oceans and operas and dance and even suffering. Each in his or her own way is so alluring. These three people give themselves over to their passions. They smell every perfume, every last flower, every last drop of human sweat. (That sense of smell, in fact, is used insistently and dramatically here, with striking, almost perfect effect.)

We forget it all too often, but the world offers us immeasurable enchantment -- if only we keep our eyes open, our ears alert, and remember to inhale. In this brilliant, debut novel, Adrienne McDonnell gives us bouquets of fresh flowers in modest apartments overlooking the Arno, where passing strangers pause, enraptured, to listen to the exquisite music being sung from above.

See reviews books regularly for The Post.

Sunday in Outlook

-- The origins of the Naval Academy.

-- The weather of the future.

-- A deep look at the ocean.

-- America's first revolutionaries.

-- And what's right with being wrong.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company