Gail Albert's "Matters of Chance" is an unusually fine first novel. Written with grace and precision, it tells the chilling story of a young woman's battle against cancer.
"I am thirty-four years old, married, a professor of neurobiology," Albert's protagonist Mona writes. "I have two sons, aged nine and seven. I grew up in Brownsville, and I left it behind, and I was diagnosed as having cancer in January. I know that these facts are connected; I have yet to understand how."
In short, Mona ponders, "Why me?" But her meditations are those of a scientist, trained to pluck truth out of randomness. "God played dice with the universe and out of it came order," she writes. "The right number of pennies came out heads, the right number of women my age got cancer. Whether or not there was meaning in my being chosen, or whether it just happened, I had to find ways of fighting back . . . I counted cracks in the shoveled pavement. If they came out even, I'd be cured."
Determined to conquer the odds against surviving an advanced stage of lymphoma, Mona and her husband Bob, a cardiologist, rail against the lethal diagnosis coldly pronounced by the first physician they consult. "I wanted the Messiah, not a doctor," Mona admits, then proceeds to place that mantle on Dr. Chou, whose experimental radiation and chemotherapy treatments at a hospital resembling New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center raises hopes that miracles can indeed occur.
Because Albert's own background as a PhD in experimental psychology from Johns Hopkins resembles Mona's, and because Albert describes the step-by-step process of Dr. Chou's treatments with an accuracy that anyone who has lived through such traumas will recognize, one must wonder if she or someone close to her has suffered as Mona suffers.
Whatever the source of her insight, what really matters here is that Albert makes her subject vivid for the reader. We, too, wince as a colleague responds to the news of Mona's illness as to a death sentence. We, too, enter the world of Dr. Chou's waiting room, where one patient eyes another as if to see reflected in a double's face the stages of his own illness or cure. We applaud Bob -- who is perhaps a little too good -- as he rallies his wife's spirits and refuses to yield to despair. And we root for the survival of their marriage even as Albert's writing (in an uncharacteristic lapse) begins to grow nearly as brittle as the couple's strained ties.
As Mona struggles to live as "normally" as possible, Dr. Chou's god-like presence looms heavily in her mind, but even as she faithfully follows his regimen, she refuses to reject any other possibility for a cure. She embarks on a vegetarian diet only to discover that another patient, following the advice of a different nutritionist, consumes nothing but meat. Nevertheless, Mona gobbles down vitamins and yeast, studies yoga, even goes to a faith healer.
She also begins a quest into her past. By retracing the journey her life has taken, she hopes to uncover the pathways that have led her to the present moment and to her diagnosis of lymphoma.
And so, facing her own death, Mona grapples in memory with the dead who haunt her. Chief among them are her parents, who died four years before in a freak car accident during a trip to the West Coast that Mona had urged them to take. Plagued by guilt, Mona carries the burden of their deaths uneasily, and eventually sets out on an actual journey west to uncover those other "matters of chance" that had led her parents to their graves.
Along the way, Mona conjures other images from her past -- primarily, of growing up poor and Jewish in Brownsville in the 1940s. Albert vividly portrays the taste and smell of the crowded streets and tenements in which Mona's bickering, close-knit family lived, but at the center of Mona's childhood lies another death -- a murder. "Hannah was my best friend until her father killed her mother with the bread knife when we were eight," the novel begins, and this primal scene of discovery -- the discovery of death -- is never far from either Mona's or the reader's consciousness.
These very different deaths -- by accident, by murder, by disease -- cause Mona to question both God's design and the rules of chance, for neither the laws of science nor a faith in God can provide her with the answers she seeks. By exorcising the past, however, she hopes in some way to exorcise her illness. Weaving together the story of Mona's past with the story of Mona's illness, Albert succeeds brilliantly in making these disparate tales into a single -- and singularly powerful -- fiction.
Because Gail Albert is a woman of many gifts, one wonders what balance she will strike between her career as an experimental psychologist and her career as a novelist. This reader votes for fiction. For in "Matters of Chance" Albert stares unblinkingly at a subject that arouses secret fears in all of us and transforms one woman's experience with cancer into a work of vision and intelligence. One senses that Albert has much to tell us, and hopes that in her next book she will proceed to tell us much more.