DOCTORS & WOMEN By Susan Cheever Clarkson N. Potter. 266 pp. $17.95
AT LEAST since Rosamond Vincy set her cap at the newest resident of Middlemarch, fictional women have been falling in love with doctors. Paradigm that it is of need meeting authority, of dependency meeting power (and status), the theme has been a fruitful vein -- whether exploited for romantic thrills or mined with serious intent -- for movies and soap operas, for novelists and feminists.
Surely the title of Susan Cheever's novel promises a knowing wink at archetype, at minimum a savvy riff on the cloying side of the tradition. But one scans Doctors & Women in vain for some hint that its author is wise to these antecedents. "I wanted you too much," the heroine tells her doctor- lover at the novel's climax. "But it wasn't Riley she had wanted," the narrative continues in breathless surprise, "but someone in a white coat with its promise of protection, salvation, and cure -- someone in authority who would stand between her and the dreadful uncertainties of real life."
It is as if the author had just discovered that Dark Victory is not a movie to be taken seriously, and hastens to pass the word.
Cheever's protagonist is Kate Loomis, a 32-year-old Manhattanite who has lost her father to cancer and fears that her mother, recently diagnosed with uterine cancer, will die the same way. Her lawyer-husband David has been a known quantity since their childhood: there's nothing much wrong with him, but there's nothing much magical, either. (The heroine's most likeable observation is that whenever he wants to have sex, he employs the euphemistic approach, "Can I give you a back rub?") When one day she takes her mother's records to New York's leading cancer research hospital (named -- oh dear -- Parkinson) for a second opinion, she is ripe to drop her burdens at the hem of a white coat.
The coat's occupant is Dr. Macklin Riley, a 42-year-old oncologist, recently divorced, whose emotional involvement with his patients and relative lack of interest in research render him a traitor to his class. Finding him sympathetic, even warm, Kate promptly endows him with every quality lacking in her husband, every capacity to shake her into life.
We can recognize the psychological sense here, but we don't have to like it in lovers who are made neither very interesting nor very sympathetic. When the love object says, "You know a lot for a woman as attractive as you are," does Kate think twice? She does not, for neither does her creator. And when Kate spins the fantasy that "Maybe they would go to Paris. He'd like Rousseau, they both had the same kind of primitive force," we are not meant to giggle -- or even to wince.
There is a little more to the story than their brief affair, but it seems self-consciously like context, set in to establish Riley's doctor-ness. In one set of intermittent scenes we watch him go about his business at the hospital, soothing, tending, caring all over the place (among other patients is a little boy sent over by central casting when he was finished wheedling home runs from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees); in another set we watch a doctor who is Riley's antithesis -- research-oriented, well-insulated against his patients' pains -- as he charges about on his hyper-efficient rounds; in a third, we join Ann Clay, aristocratic super-exec daughter of another Riley patient.
This is Cheever's fourth novel, but it is next to impossible to reconcile it with the book she published just three years ago, an incomparably moving appreciation of her father, John Cheever. Home Before Dark was written with an outsize wisdom, a compassion and tolerance for its beloved and impossible subject that were transfixing -- both in a writer and in a daughter. It was beautifully modulated, cannily structured and above all very well written.
What gives here? Despite what are clearly the author's serious intentions (people who reinvent the wheel are nearly always serious about it), Doctors & Women is poorly calculated, mechanically structured, even, in parts, ill-written. It suffers from clumsy exposition ("As he watched the tall, lanky doctor race toward him, Riley reminded himself that he had every reason to hate Peter Mallory. For one thing . . . " Ensues -- could you guess? -- history of Mallory). There is plain old awkward writing of the kind that turns up in grammar texts. ("Sam had enjoyed his prosperity intensely, although his swarthy face and shoulders had never looked right in a dinner jacket . . ." There is a lack of generosity toward almost every character (non-WASP characters are described twice as having the look of "peasants") except the heroine, who is awarded a degree of empathy out of proportion to what seem her just deserts.
DESPITE a smattering of nice bits (the deranged woman who lives in the apartment next door to Kate's office; a cockroach that intrudes on Kate's first tentative outing with Riley; especially the story of a car accident in Kate's childhood) the novel is mostly devoid of -- well, novelistic detail.
Comes, finally, the dread comparison Cheever has courageously risked by writing fiction -- fair only because she wrote this passage: "My father's intense concentration on what you can see and hear and smell and touch was at the core of his gift as a writer. He focused on the surface and texture of life, not on the emotions and motives underneath. In creative-writing classes, teachers always say that it is important to 'show' and not 'tell.' My father's work describes the way people live, and the way he lived. It never tells."
Doctors & Women often tells, rarely shows -- and is manifestly the work of a writer who knows the difference. Is it as simple as that Cheever has a great talent for memoir, a lesser one for fiction? Only she can know where she found the qualities that animate her last book, and why they failed her here. We all can hope that she finds them again.
Marjorie Williams is a staff writer for the Style section of The Washington Post.