The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

“It’s books, of course, that you got all your notions from. Not from real life. All those novels and trash that’s up there in your room at home. I wonder sometimes if some if these authors who write that stuff shouldn’t be prosecuted. or maybe we should hand out prescriptions for books the way we do for drugs. Not to be taken by mouth. Not for people who can’t read right from wrong. Yes. Because you’re not the heroine of some bloody book.”

It’s probably a big mistake to return to the same city, the same hotel and the same suite you spent your honeymoon in 16 years earlier. If you agree with that statement, you should also agree with the idea that it’s downright careless, stupid, insensitive or cruel to send the wife off on what amounts to a  second honeymoon alone. But that’s just what happens in Brian Moore’s novel The Doctor’s Wife.

Attractive 37 -year-old Sheila Redden arrives in Paris from Belfast. The plan is that she’s to spend the night with Peg, an old friend from university, and then fly on alone to Villefranche where her husband, Kevin, is to join her the next day. In Paris, Sheila meets Peg’s new boyfriend, Ivo and a young American named Tom Lowry. There’s an immediate attraction between Sheila and Tom, and then circumstances lead to them spending a few pleasant hours together.  

Later that evening, a phone call between Kevin and Sheila reveals the underlying pathology of the Reddens’ marriage. Kevin announces, without a shred of regret but with a large dose of self-righteousness, that he’s volunteered to work for the next few days and that Sheila must spend at least the first part of their holiday alone.  He says he’ll join her in a few days:

“But why? They take advantage of you, time and time again. You’re always the one who works extra days. Surely just this once, they’ll have the decency to let you get away in peace.”

“Look, nobody forced me, it was my idea. And besides, it’s just for two more days.”

“But this is our holiday! We’ve been looking forward to it for ages.”

“You have,”  he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, will you stop nagging me. I’ll be in Villefranche on Friday. Just enjoy yourself and lie out in the sun. You don’t need me for that.”

“So you won’t be coming before Friday, is that it?”

“Let’s say Friday night. I’ll give you a ring.”

“Why bother?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you don’t want to come on this holiday, then don’t. You’ll be far happier sitting at home, stuck into the telly.”

“Oh balls.” He was shouting now. “We can’t all live like you, ignoring the facts of life, dancing in the dark.”

It was his oldest jibe. Dancing in the dark. “Suit yourself,” she said.

“I’ll be there on Friday night. Look I’m sorry it turned out like this.”

“You’re not one bit sorry,” she said and hung up.

With the conversation still ringing in her ears, Sheila asks herself  “what did he think a woman did alone in the South of France.” And that, of course becomes the crux of the story. Sheila leaves Paris with some regret and flies to Villefranche. Tom follows her and so begins a passionate affair….

While this is a story of an affair, the backdrop is the story of a marriage–although that doesn’t become apparent until later. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get when I started The Doctor’s Wife--a book I came to courtesy of Asylum and John Self’s Moore-a-thon. I reasoned that if this blogger went to the trouble of reviewing 8 books by Brian Moore, then I might be missing out if I didn’t try this author. So I went looking for Moore’s books. Most of them are out-of-print and in the fading-out-of-view phase. New York Review Books, however, recently republished The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne reviewed here. After reading that Graham Greene claimed Moore as his “favourite living novelist,” no slight recommendation there, I decided this was more positive press for Moore, but then again both writers had that catholic thing going.  When I read the synopsis of The Doctor’s Wife, I winced at the possibilities of adultery, sin and guilt and hoped that I wasn’t about to step into a book that wheeled in a priest to solve the protagonist’s dilemma. I shouldn’t have troubled myself about Moore’s abilities. The Doctor’s Wife is written with incredible sensitivity towards its main character, Sheila Redden.

As the title suggests Sheila Redden is largely seen as an appendage to her husband, and just who or what she is remains tantalizingly and deliberately vague. This is a woman who never used her university education and whose husband views her with no small degree of contempt.  In a flashback of a particularly painful domestic scene Kevin accuses her of flirtations with their male friend, Brian, and Kevin tells Sheila that when it comes to men  “you make an absolute fool of yourself”  It escalates:

Kevin kept after her, mimicking her, mimicking Brian’s English accent, showing how she got excited when Brian talked about books, and then Kevin started to sing ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ making fun of her, and it was the most awful, hateful, hurtful row, malicious he was, he wouldn’t stop.

Subtly, unobtrusively, The Doctor’s Wife examines the politics of marriage: the power plays, the avoidance, the corrosive rot and decay of years of petty comments between two people who were never compatible in the first place and who are now divided by a chasm of dislike and resentment.

Catholicism does enter the tale but without an absolutist presence. A priest is wheeled in but he somewhat disconcertingly quotes Sartre instead of quoting god.

One of the strongest points that the novel makes is in its connections between the past, the present, and an unknown shadowy future. Stella makes inevitable, solitary comparisons between the original honeymoon and the bitter present.  The differences between the two periods in Stella’s life are striking, and she is left with the sad, yet angry acknowledgement that Kevin would rather find excuses to work than spend a week with his wife in Nice. But this is a comparison of the past and the present. In one passage Sheila calls home and as the phone rings, she conjures up the vision of her home–her life but without her in it:

She heard the phone ringing at home and thought of the black receiver sitting on the worn whorled top of the monk’s bench in the hall below the carved elephant tusks, which held an old brass dinner gong once owned by Kevin’s grandfather. The phone rang and rang. But she knew they were there, sitting in the den at the back, stuck in with the damned telly. 

 The plot addresses the idea that in the past people tolerated miserable mortal life because they expected a payoff after death. Along with this notion of heaven as a payoff for good behaviour, of course goes the idea that sin brings the price of damnation. This idea of the tradeoffs between lives (mortal and immortal) is complemented by Sheila’s belief that another sort of life might be possible.  Sheila’s brother, Owen Deane, who wrestles with his own domestic troubles, wobbles on the arguments of sin, and he realises that while these arguments may have worked in the past, somehow they now seem redundant. To Owen, Sheila voices the thought that:

People escape from their lives . Did you ever read those newspaper stories about the man who walks out of his house saying he’s going down to the corner to buy cigarettes? And he’s never heard from again.

The Doctor’s Wife is a stunning book, a lean, understated tale, full of gray areas of ambiguity that address notions of conformity and habit within the context of an unhappy marriage. I found the book impossible to put down.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

  1. Glad you liked it, Guy. Although I haven’t covered The Doctor’s Wife on my blog (yet), it remains one of my favourite Moores. In many of Moore’s novels, the main character is seeking something to fill the void that religion would, a generation earlier, have occupied. Here Sheila Redden finds sexual passion makes a worthwhile fillip – at least for a time.

    The other endorsement I can give this book is that Mrs Self, who doesn’t-read as much as I do read, also found it impossible to put down, and raced through it in a few days.

  2. leroyhunter

    When I was much younger I remember my dad being a fan of Moore. I wanted particularly to read The Color of Blood but never did.

    This sounds great Guy, and as you say a recommendation from Greene has to count for something. I likewise spotted the Moore-a-thon at the Asylum and it recalled him to mind for the first time in years.

  3. I found the book amazingly sensitive to Sheila’s situation as the men in her life try to round her up like a stray and slightly dense farm animal.

    I have a few used copies of his other books on their way, so this won’t be my last Moore.

    Can’t thank you enough for the recommendation.

  4. Oh and I forgot to mention: The Doctor’s Wife was the first novel of Moore’s to be shortlisted for the Booker (followed by his thrillers The Colour of Blood in 1987 and Lies of Silence in 1990). However one of the judges, Mary Wilson (wife of Prime Minister Harold Wilson) vetoed it because of its sexually explicit content. Wilson was an odd choice of judge: according to fellow judge Francis King, she had read few novels, and didn’t understand when he used the word ‘Kafkaesque’ to refer to a book. (She also vetoed Julian Rathbone’s shortlisted King Fisher Lives, saying that she “couldn’t be party to giving the prize to a book about cannibalism.”)

  5. Interesting info about the Booker Prize–I am not much of a believer in prizes. The ones I like never win.

    Now I am reminded of the book (which I haven’t read) Mrs Wilson’s Diary by John Wells with input from John Ingram and Peter Cook. It’s the fictional doings of Mary Wilson. It would be amusing if it touched on the cannabalism.

  6. Leroy: I see that there’s a film version of one of Moore’s novels The Statement. It will probably be disappointing, but I am going to watch it anyway.

    With NYRB reprinting The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, I expect we’ll see an increased interest in Moore.

  7. I’ve really only heard of The lonely passion of Judith Hearne (as it was “done” last year on our First Tuesday Bookclub TV show), and if anyone had asked me who wrote I’d have had no idea! But this is a great and enticing review – both in your analysis and the wonderful choice of quotes. I have so much on my TBR I don’t know when I could get to it, but you’ve caught my attention.

  8. Gunmmie: I first noticed Moore on John Self’s blog in 2009. It took me this long to get to a book. When I went back to check my comment on The Asylum, I was surprised that that much time had gone by.

    I don’t know what the answer is….I could have put Moore at the top of the stack, but then I would have bypassed so many others I’d been intending to read. The thing is that the Moore novel is so good, in hindsight I wish I had jumped the queue.

  9. … a stunning book, a lean, understated tale…

    Don’t know much of Moore, but that was my reaction to Black Robe, the best fiction I’ve ever read about the encounter between Europeans and native Americans. (The movie was an excellent adaptation.) Read the statement too, which I thought very fine. I knew he had written a lot, but never got to it. Thanks for the nudge in his direction.

  10. leroyhunter

    “It will probably be disappointing, but I am going to watch it anyway.”
    Martyr!

    This lines up with your comment on the Mr Polly thread as well Guy. I’m generally reluctant to “see the film” of a book I’ve enjoyed, or vice versa. I could never, for example, imagine reading Puzo’s original novel. Likewise I steer clear of Chandler adaptations (unless directed by H Hawks).

    How many of the source books for Hitchcock are worth reading, I wonder? Likewise Chabrol? On the other hand, is a mediocre attempt to visualise a great book (exhibit A: Revolutionary Road) worth seeing?

  11. Lichanos:
    I haven’t read the Black robe but I did enjoy the film. I usually avoid historical novels.

  12. Leroy:

    I am fascinated by the film/book connection. Yes, I agree, all too often the film adaptations of books fail on many levels, but when they work, they really are wonderful.

    Colonel Chabert is not Balzac’s best by any means, but the film adaptation is superb.

    I disliked the film version of About Schmidt but I was intrigued to see what the book version was like (wonderful as it turned out).

    I like to see what filmmakers ‘do’ to the film–how they condense, what they cut, what they create, what they emphasize.

    My all-time favourite Hitchcock film is Strangers on a Train and the book it’s based on (same title) is by Patricia Highsmith. I’d seen the film several times before I became curious about the book. The book is far bleaker, and watching the film and reading the book gave me a greater appreciation of both.

    I prefer to watch the film first but it doesn’t always work out that way, and to me reading the book and then watching the film can be very disappointing.

    In the case of The Statement, I haven’t read the book and if I do it is a long way down on the list. So I will rent it and there’s always the OFF button.

    Speaking of Chabrol, Betty is based on a Simenon novel and is an excellent adaptation.

    The Brothers Rico (which I recently watched) was not as good an experience as the book, but as a noir freak, I enjoyed it nonetheless–partly to see what the director did with it. I preferred Simenon’s colder delivery, but for a cinematic experience, The Brothers Rico was still enjoyable–even if it ended happily and threw in a nun for good measure.

    I just watched Bedelia (director Lance Comfort) based on the Vera Caspary novel which I just started. Caspary also wrote Laura–another big noir title. Watching the film and now reading the book is a fascinating experience. The book begins with a scene which is quite far along in the film. I can see Caspary and her screenwriter collaborator/lover/husband Isadore Goldsmith writing out each scene from the book on notecards and then moving them around to decide how to sequence the screenplay.

    I have no idea if this is how it happened, of course, but it ‘feels’ this way when I think about the two in juxtaposition. Each gives a richer understanding to the other.

    Anyway, even though some of the film versions are going to be bad, well, it’s an interest of mine.

  13. Actually, I do see this as a film with Diane Lane. It must be because of Unfaithful….

  14. leroyhunter

    Guy – Strangers On A Train, yes, of course – I should have answered my own question. Like you I’d seen it a number of times before reading it, but I haven’t rewatched it since – maybe I should. It (the book) is very much bleaker. I was thinking more of the Bloch book that was the source for Psycho and D’entre les morts vis-a-vis Vertigo.

    What do you make of the other Highsmith versions (generally of Ripley) that are out there?

    I guess I was being unfair in my original comment, there are as many examples of interesting or illuminating adaptations as there are ones that don’t work. Agree with you that the order book/film or film/book can be crucial and inform how receptive you are to an adaptation.

    Funnily, I’ve no interest in reading Palahniuk despite admiring Fincher’s Fight Club movie. But I do want to read Jim Thompson’s stuff…and James M Cain. I don’t know how or why those kinds of “taste prejudices” occur but they’re quite frequent.

    Interesting stuff about Laura and the relationship there between book / film / writer. What a great film – is the book worth a look? I first watched it in a double bill with the equally strange Leave Her To Heaven, so the 2 are always linked in my mind.

  15. More often than not I am disappointed, but that doesn’t stop me.

    I have only read a few Highsmiths and not the Ripley series–something I need to correct. I have seen the films, so I have a start, I suppose.

    I am a few pages from the end of Bedelia, and there’s been a big payoff in the book-made-into-film experience. I am reviewing the film over at the noir blog this weekend. I haven’t read Laura yet; I just bought a copy after enjoying Bedelia. The film and book versions of Bedelia have some huge differences in setting and sequence. The differences are enough to say that if the book and the film didn’t share the name ‘Bedelia’ it might take someone a while before they caught on to the fact that they are connected. The film focuses on the visual with a strong motif of the real vs facsimile (Bedelia being the beautiful facsimile of a loving, doting wife). The book, however, is intense with an almost claustrophic atmosphere.

    Now I know I have to read Laura. There’s a book version of Leave Her to Heaven and I have it in the stack too. Bedelia has some of the same themes as Laura, and the funny thing is when the film begins, it reminded me very much of the beginning of Laura. Laura is a much slicker film.

    I know what you mean about enjoying some films and yet having no interest in pursuing the book behind it. That happens to me sometimes. The opposite happened with About Schmidt. I did not like the film, but it contained so many reversals, I was curious about the book. I had the idea that it had been really mucked with.

  16. leroyhunter

    Rare for the writer to also be the screenwriter, which makes the changes in how the story is told even more interesting.

    Generally writers seem to be excluded from the movie adaptation process, or only included out of politeness, while their work is (in their eyes) butchered in the transfer. Of course there are some writers whose stature precludes such treatment, and it’s always interesting to get a peek at how the dynamic works.

  17. One of her early novels sounds extremely bold for its time–a bit soapy but with an illicit affair and an abortion.

    Laura should be an interesting read. It’s supposed to be her best. Caspary is mostly out-of-print these days. Another writer fading away.

  18. Pingback: Moore reviews « The Moore The Merrier

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