“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.”
“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.