Sep 252012
The Doctor’s Daughter by Hilma Wolitzer
Three Stars

From the outside, Alice Brill’s life looks good: financially secure, happily married, successful kids, interesting work. But one day she wakes up with a hollow feeling of dread lodged in her chest, and Wolitzer’s novel tells the story of Alice’s search to find out what is wrong. Along the way, we discover deeper truths about 50-something Alice. She’s never really gotten over the death by breast cancer of her 50-something mother, a poet whose writing career always came third after her surgeon husband and only child. Alice and her husband, Everett, were aspiring writers who gave up their writing when pregnancy forced an early marriage. Two of their three children have turned out well — a lawyer and a classical musician — but the youngest barely finished high school, has no hope of going to college, and is living on his own supported by the bank of Mom and Dad. Her once-brilliant father has mostly disappeared into dementia and is confined to a nursing home which she finds ghastly to visit. And her job as a book doctor helping aspiring writers was unwelcome make work she dreamed up after a wrenching layoff from the publishing house where she’d edited for years. Alice’s search unfolds over about six months and the quest offers a mystery that helps propel the reader through the story, which provides a nice panorama of contemporary Manhattan life. Lots of things happen to Alice in those six months, but to most of them — even pivot points that are transformational — her reaction is pretty low-key. Once Alice find the source of her dread, she’s able to make the obvious (to the reader) adjustments necessary to go on with her life, with the inside now looking as good as the outside. In the book, Alice once or twice refers to her problem as “a midlife crisis,” but I think it’s more apt to call it a marital crisis. And as a marital crisis, it fits the classic mode of empty nesters whose problems don’t become apparent until the last chick has flown, leaving them alone together. I mention this only because Wolitzer doesn’t, which seemed a glaring oversight to me. This is a somber, low-key novel, well-written with nicely-drawn characters and enough plot to keep things interesting.