There are so many great out-of-print books: books that have their moment and then vanish. When I was at Murphy-Brookfield Books in Iowa City a few weeks ago, I realized I would be happy reading only out-of-print books.
Some out-of-print books are reissued by NYRB, Virago, small presses and university presses. Many more deserve to be revived.
Susan Cheever’s Doctors & Women is my choice for the week. This quiet novel, published in 1987, seems to have fallen off the map. This weekend, when I was reading it in the car on a trip west, it completely took me out of myself. Cheever captures perfectly the “yuppie” angst of the 1980s in this perceptive novel about four upper-class professionals whose lives are linked by the treatment of cancer: Kate, a moody freelance journalist whose mother has uterine cancer; Macklin Riley, her mother’s oncologist who cares more about his patients than the research demanded by the high-powered hospital; Ann, a multi-millionaire businesswoman whose mother is also being treated for cancer by Riley; and Riley’s boss, Mallory, a cold, first-rate surgeon who doesn’t emotionally connect with his patients or residents and who is irritated by Riley’s bending of the rules.
Cheever describes in crystalline detail the cancer treatment of the 1980s and the grimness of hospitals. Kate’s parents are both treated at “one of the world’s foremost cancer research and treatment institutes,” and she evokes its atmosphere.
Kate hadn’t been there since her father’s last visit. She and her father had waited hours together in the dim light of the third-floor, outpatient lounge. time had another quality in the hospital, as if the world outside with its grandfather clocks and slim gold watches had ceased to exist. It was always a shock to walk out the double glass doors and find that a day or a season had passed.”
The novel focuses on tense Kate: her father died a few years ago of cancer and she is trying to calm her mother, who can’t quite believe her cancer is treatable. But in addition to her anxiety about her mother’s cancer, Kate’s marriage is falling apart–she married David, a man she grew up with, and she knows him too well and is bored with him. (The first line of the novel is: “You know, we don’t talk much anymore,” Kate said.) Her job as a freelancer is insecure: an editor rejects an article she wrote on a German artist and decides she should write instead on the “Picasso business,” in which she has no interest.
No wonder Dr. Macklin Riley, her mother’s caring oncologist, looks so good. Kate is determined to have an affair with him, and I like it that Cheever makes her the aggressor. He doesn’t really want it, because it is against the rules to get involved with a patient or a patient’s family member.
In the chapters about Riley, we learn about the history of cancer treatment, his love of his patients, and his agony about not being able to save them all. Every day he visits a little boy dying of leukemia who is not his patient, and his boss doesn’t understand why he looks for this pain. Riley is completely absorbed in his work, and he likes Kate because she is so interested in his work.
In the chapters about Mallory, Riley’s boss, we see an energetic man who is annoyed by anything less than perfection, who runs up and down stairs chased by out-of-breath powerless residents, whom he despises, and who recognizes the patients only by the name on their charts (if the name is wrong, he sends back for another chart). But Mallory is a brilliant surgeon who saves whomever he can, and even when he cannot remove all the tumors, he is positive about buying time. So the patients are lucky to have him.
There is a triangular relationship between Kate, Riley, and Ann. Riley does this annoying thing: he keeps inviting both women to lunch. (He’s trouble, Kate. Stay away!)
There are a few chapters from Ann’s point of view, and they are not quite as good as the others. Still, I read this book as though it were a delicious truffle.
This good novel seems to have been misunderstood by reviewers of the time. I skimmed a review in the New York Times, in which the reviewer seemed to dismiss it because the women characters weren’t feminist enough.
Needless to say, I didn’t read it that way at all, and I am putting out a Virago alert on this one. Yes, for God’s sake, if they can reissue Kinflicks and Valley of the Dolls, both novels I liked, Doctors & Women should be added to the list.
Susan Cheever is John Cheever’s daughter. She has written novels, memoirs, and nonfiction, and most recently Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.