21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA is Adrienne McDonnell's debut novel and in this reader's opinion, it is a very successful one. The book centers around an extremely talented woman, Erika Myrick, her wealthy and business-minded husband, Peter, and a successful obstetrician, Dr. Ravell. Erika and Peter have been trying to get pregnant for many years, but without any success. By the time they consult Dr. Ravell, Erika has given up any desire she may have had to become a mother and has resolved to finally go to Italy and pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer. Peter is almost desperate that his wife become pregnant, due to both his longing for a child and his need to bind Erika to him in what he assumes will be an irrevocable manner. Ravell is caught in the middle, torn between wanting to give the Myricks the child they've been hoping for, see Erika fulfill her dream, and do what he can to keep her near him. A spontaneous decision by one of these characters acts as a catalyst for all that follows, as their competing desires inexorably push them down a path of unintended consequences. This book explores the strange dynamic that emerges between a married couple and their doctor and how each of their choices and actions impact their own lives, as well as one another's.
McDonnell used her husband's family history as inspiration for this book: his great-grandmother left her husband and young son to pursue a singing career in Italy. The author says she felt conflicted about the idea of a woman abandoning her family for the sake of her art: "Did I admire her and want to applaud her courage? Or was it heartbreaking that she'd deserted her little boy?" (from the author's website). These conflicting emotions are at the root of the story and McDonnell does a superb job of arousing the same opposing feelings in the reader and leaving us torn between these two reactions.
The book spans the years 1903 to 1914 and travels between the privileged neighborhoods of Boston, a boat in the Atlantic Ocean, a coconut plantation in Trinidad, the jungles of Guiana, and the streets and opera houses of Italy. An added bonus is the fascinating information McDonnell provides about fertility and gynecology in the early 1900s. As she points out in her historical note at the end of the novel, many practices that are seen today as "modern" and "groundbreaking" are actually neither. Consider this: the first recorded case of successful artificial insemination was performed in 1785 by Scottish surgeon John Hunter!! Also interesting was the novel's exploration of the complex and intimate relationship that developed between male obstetricians and their (obviously female) patients, whose bodies they knew and understood in ways that often neither the women themselves, nor their husbands, did.
McDonnell's writing is both simple and rich; there is a softly poetic quality to it and every word and sentence seems to have been carefully chosen and crafted. The story and characters truly come to life within the book's pages and I couldn't help but feel myself emotionally involved and implicated as I read it. I am someone who cannot usually tolerate anything having to do with adultery - even if it's a completely fictional novel or film - so the fact that McDonnell had me feeling so engaged was both a surprise and a testament to her talent as a storyteller. The complex love triangle that makes up this story drew me in almost from the beginning (if it can be called that, because this "love triangle" doesn't really follow any type of normal pattern).
Although a lot of changes and life events take place, in the end it's a character-driven story and Erika, Peter, and Ravell are written well enough to pull it off. They are complex, interesting, passionate, and imperfect people. They are not always likable and sometimes their actions or decisions leave the reader feeling anger, dismay, repulsion, and/or pity. The three of them seem propelled down a murky path that you can't envision engendering anything but heartbreak and tragedy; it's almost like a car crash you can't look away from, however it's much, much subtler than that and often feels almost anti-climactic. All three are vividly portrayed and in the end these two men and one woman are much like real people: neither wholly good/right, nor wholly bad/wrong. Instead, they are essentially human, and we come to feel an affection and sympathy for them, however unwilling it may be at times.
The book is written in third-person, but all three have sections written from their point of view; this was something I appreciated as it gave me a degree of access to and insight into all of them. One thing I will note is that we never know Dr. Ravell's first name - he remains throughout either "Dr. Ravell," or "Ravell" to his friends. I only started to take note of this a little ways into the book, so although it's possible I missed this somewhere in the first few chapters, I know that that's the case for almost the entire book. This is interesting given the fact that Erika and Peter become "Erika" and "Peter" towards the beginning and are referred to as such from then on by the narrator and the other two main characters. Also, whenever Ravell and Erika are together without Peter, the story was always told from Erika's point of view. These may seem like minor things, but they shaped the tone of the story, albeit in subtle ways.
I only have a few specific criticisms. The character of Christopher, a young American accompanist who becomes much a part of Erika's life in the second half of the novel, pretty much disappears at the end and we don't know what happens to him - or his two friends. I also felt that when Erika finds out (a very important/shocking) something, her reaction was not at all what I would have expected; it was appropriate for about three lines and then she seems to almost completely dismiss the entire event. I think more could have - and definitely should have - been made out of this, especially considering the various things it puts in motion and the consequences it ends up having for all three characters. Finally, parts of the ending were a little too pat for me. Not everything is tied up with a neat little bow - how could it be?! - but the conclusion nonetheless seems to fall a little short; we thought we were slowly climbing to some jarring result or eye-opening hard truth, and instead we're thrown a loud side twist, while the central story is then quietly laid down at our feet. The "loud side twist" could have really worked if it had been altered a little and used to end the overall story. This would have left us with a very tragic ending, à la Anita Shreve, but it would have been an appropriate one and would have worked in a literary sense.
In conclusion, THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA was an enjoyable read - an engaging novel centering around three original, compelling, and flawed characters. I would definitely recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction, opera enthusiasts, and most female readers. Additionally, it abounds with issues that could stimulate wonderful group discussion, so I think it would be a *superb* book club selection (especially if it's a coed book club - could lead to some very interesting conversations!).
[This review is of an advanced copy format of the book]
RECOMMENDATION: This novel reminded me very much of Catherine Texier's Victorine, an extremely wonderful book (4.5 stars) that I finished in one day, if I remember correctly. This novel also centers around a mysterious and intriguing woman from the author's ancestors and explores her struggle between responsibility and family duty, and her pursuit of passion and independence. In the case of VICTORINE, Texier's great-grandmother is the featured heroine - a French woman living at the end of the 19th century who leaves her husband and children to go to Indochina with her lover.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2011
I wrote the following review for the website Reader Unboxed.
The Doctor and the Diva is quite unlike any novel I have read before. We not only learn the history of modern fertility research and treatments but are introduced to wholly original characters that make decidedly human choices with often unseen consequences. Adrienne McDonnell has a descriptive style that has you tasting the salty sweat and tears right along with her characters. Each personage is fully developed enough for you to sympathize with them even when you see the disaster that inevitably lies ahead.
Erika, by far my favorite character, is truly a woman before, or outside of, her time. Her ambition and passion is for music and singing and, while she does love her husband at the onset of the novel, is tired of living a life she no longer wants. By the time Dr. Ravell enters her life she has already decided she is not meant to have a child with her husband, Peter, and is ready to leave for Italy and the life she does in fact wish to have. Ravell's quick obsession and friendship with both Erika and Peter leads him to make a drastic, very unethical choice that will keep them in his life and, he thinks, make them both happy as well. His actions start them on a path that leads to a unique love triangle and new passions for each of them.
One of my favorite storylines was Erika's unwavering determination to travel to Italy and do everything in her power to become the opera diva her God-given talent required her to be. She lets nothing - not a husband, not society, not even a child - stop her from reaching her goals. While I didn't agree with all the choices she made, I had to admire her for doing what she felt she needed to do. The book makes a point of highlighting that women have often been expected to put their dreams aside for their families. This is sometimes still true today although not nearly as much as in the time the novel is set. Erika's infertility falls squarely on her shoulders and then, when she does have a child and afterward still finds a way to pursue her own interests, it is viewed as simply preposterous.
The one character that I truly felt sorry for was Quentin, Erika's son. While all three adults have their own reasons for wanting Erika to have a child (Erika wishes to conquer this obstacle before being able to move on to her career; Peter thinks a child will keep Erika at home and would give him something he has always wanted; Ravell wants to keep his friends happy while keeping Erika close) no one seems to think about what will happen to the child once it becomes an actual person. Quentin is left without parents for much of his young life. The descriptions of Quentin longing for family and closeness brought tears to my eyes and was the only time I felt some real dislike for Erika. As a mother it was hard to read.
Overall I was fully impressed with this novel. I loved the journeys I went along for and feel like I can almost cross some of the exotic locations off my list of places to visit (almost). Adrienne McDonnell's writing is sensuous, absorbing and a real delight.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
There are many elements in this novel that ring of truth. The story is believable and well-paced, right down to a climax that led me to almost shout aloud, "No! It can't happen like this!" The descriptions of what it feels like to release the music inside--to sing well--are so true that the author has to have felt that herself, but how did she find the right words? The overriding truth of this novel, though, is that all of us make choices that, no matter what the motivation, force us to face consequences we may not have anticipated.
I think this novel would be a great book club selection and is for anyone who loves music and/or travel to a tropical paradise or Italy at the turn of the 20th century.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Erika von Kessler is an up and coming singer on the Boston Opera scene in the early 1900s. She longs to move to Italy, to launch an international career; her husband, however, longs to start a family. After several years without pregnancy, they begin to see specialists, until they are referred to the beloved Dr. Ravell, notorious for success among couples struggling to conceive. When Ravell secretly discovers the husbands sterility, he takes drastic measures to insure the couple conceives, only to see the baby be stillborn. Following this tragedy, scandal chases him from Boston, and the couple later follow him to Trinidad to have him once again help them conceive. The results of that trip will forever alter the lives of so many people, including several innocent children.
What a lush, gorgeous novel this was. A read can tell when a book is written out of love and passion, as this one so obviously was. The jacket notes indicate that aspects of the story were based on some family letters and history, and I think McDonnell truly made the story come alive. While the book was quite long, spanning several years and various locations, each time and place setting was described in perfect detail, so that it truly came alive in my mind.
I loved the characters of Erika and Ravell, and seeing how this situation impacted their lives, each without the others knowledge. It was interesting to see how infertility was handled in this time period, and to know that some doctors were truly using cutting edge technology, even then. I found the topics quite interesting and unusual.
The language is rich and decadent at times, but I loved every minute of it. For once, I found myself really trying to draw a book out, because I knew when it was over, I would feel a sense of loss. I savored each tiny morsel of the text, and allowed my heart to break a little at the conclusion of each successive part. A wonderful historical drama, with a nice romantic substory.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Living in Boston in 1906, Erica Von Kessler has high hopes of being an opera star. Her husband, Peter, has a differing opinion of Erica's career choice and is constantly herding her from one doctor to another in hopes of having their fertility issues resolved. When Erica and Peter engage the services of Dr. Ravell, Peter is very hopeful that Ravell's incredible advancements in the field will solve their problem once and for all. But Erica is far from being hopeful and it's her despondency over her infertility that prompts Dr. Ravell to make an extreme decision that will drastically alter all three of their lives forever. After the fateful decision of Dr. Ravell fails to bear fruit, Erica and Peter begin to grow apart and they once again rely upon the doctor to help them conceive a child together. When Erica's dreams of being an opera star begin to come to fruition, Peter, Ravell and Erica step into a dance of secrecy, deceit, and complicity that weave them together more tightly than any natural bond could ever hope to. Part historical drama and part love story, The Doctor and the Diva explores the conflicting desires of two men and one woman whose dream of the perfect child might just be their downfall.
I had serious reservations about this book stemming mainly from the feelings the title gave me. Knowing nothing other than the title, I had expected this book to be more of a bodice-ripper rather than any type of serious piece of literature. What I found was actually very surprising, because McDonnell's skill brought forth a lot of sensitive issues and imbued them with a relevance and resonance that I found to be not only abundantly entertaining, but also very provocative and thoughtful.
The situation early in the book between Erica and her husband was rather alarming. Erica's sole ambition is to become an opera singer and she was born with a voice to give this dream power. But Peter won't hear of Erica doing anything other than preparing herself to bear his offspring and forces her to consult with doctor after doctor in order to fulfill his desires. I was sad for Erica and felt that Peter was taking her dreams from her with his ceaseless badgering. The book made me feel a little angry at the realization that during this period in history, a woman existed solely to fulfill the desires of her husband and not much else. I grew apprehensive that Peter would end up controlling Erica's life and that her chance to sing would be extinguished. I didn't want Erica to get pregnant, because by doing so, she would be feeding Peter's ambition to control her life, and I felt that Erica didn't deserve that.
When Peter and Erica meet Ravell, things begin to change. Far from being a proponent of Peter's ideas, he sees a side of Erica that no one else seems to. When he questions her about her desire to have a child, she admits that it's something that she wants but it's not the only thing, and that because she has been repeatedly thwarted in her efforts, she has now become focused on the opera. When Ravell makes his decision to do the impossible for Erica and Peter, he sets into motion a series of events that are irrevocable and intense. He will give Erica what she wants, in every sense, but to do this, he must not only deceive her, he must also pay the price for his actions. As Peter and Erica's lives begin to move in harmony, Ravell's begins to fall apart, and it's arguable whether this is Ravell's due.
After a time, the three cross paths again, yet everything about them and their situations has changed. Curiously, Ravell remains dogged in efforts to please them both, though they both want very different things. In this respect, Ravell reveals his selflessness and altruism, but one can see that his motives are not always pure. As Ravell moves in and out of the couple's lives, he gives and takes in equal measure, and though Peter and Erica make their own choices, it's easy to see Ravell's hand in everything they do. These characters are all very interesting specimens, because while you can root for them and dream with them, they can also be very selfish and self-serving. In a few cases they can even become villains, though they all share this role equally. It's easy to see why they do the things that they do, but underneath, it's also easy to see how wrong they are.
When the book reaches it's final section, three lives have come full circle, and it is time for dues to be paid. This is one thing I most liked about the book. No one gets off scot-free, no one can say that they've not had to make sacrifices and adjustments. There's an undercurrent of perfectly culled drama running through this story and it remains intact without ever getting hysterical or overblown. These characters grow and change and their lives become much more than they had been. The three are also somewhat diminished by their experiences as well, which is a point I feel was handled beautifully. So much gain, yet so much loss.
Though I didn't expect to love this book, the fact is that I did and I think many others will as well. It was a touching story full of interesting ideas and perplexing questions, and those readers who like to get really invested in their characters' plights will find a treasure trove to keep them satisfied. The story was complex and involving without being overly florid and the book had the distinct advantage of being a bit on the unpredictable side. I know I'm going to be looking forward to reading more from this author and I urge you not to let the title of this book run you off. A surprisingly good read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Erika von Kessler is a diva with big dreams; though she's well into her twenties and married, she secretly longs to leave her husband and travel to Italy where she might become the star she believes she is destined to be. Her businessman husband Peter's fervent desire to have a child, and her seeming inability to conceive, have only caused her to long even more to leave him. Fertility doctor after fertility doctor have failed to help her conceive, until the couple go to Doctor Ravell, a Boston specialist who has reportedly worked miracles in an age before artificial insemination was regularly practiced. Ravell is immediately captivated by Erika and, eventually, she by him, until their lives and ambitions become woven together.
This was not a book that sucked me in right away. In fact, I didn't actually like the characters. Perhaps realistically, they are all very selfish in their own ways, very human and particularly flawed, but that certainly makes them hard to understand. Erika's struggle for a child dominates the beginning of the book; it infuriated me, I must admit, when her husband refused having his sperm sample analyzed and then Ravell found out that the "fault" lay with him, not her - I find this difficult to articulate but I intensely despised him after his arrogance allowed him to go on blaming his wife for something that had nothing to do with her, when in reality it was a burden they could have borne together.
In some ways, despite the fact that I didn't like her much, it's easy to understand Erika's struggle, which was particularly indicative of the early twentieth century. Her ambitions are greater than the life she has, and she is forced to contain her talent in a world which expects her to be happy as a wife and mother. Although some women are, she isn't made for that role, and because she doesn't fit the mold, she has to do something extreme to achieve her own dreams. Still, she doesn't do so without any emotion, and her eventual choice is one that does in fact devastate her. I may not have appreciated the "romance" within this book much, but I can't fault McDonnell's characterization of these characters.
Yes, the "romance". I really did not feel that much about any connection between Erika and Ravell. I did not like a huge number of their actions and I honestly didn't get where the romance came from. Ravell has a complicated relationship with his gynecological patients, given he's also having an affair with another one when the book opens, and there is some insight in how they could feel some level of intimacy towards one another. But ... I just wasn't convinced.
Anyway, the book is actually quite well written and cleverly structured, with different phases of Erika's life mapped out with different sections of the novel, of which there are six in total. Some of the scenes are beautifully written, and I found those in Trinidad, in the jungle, to be particularly appealing, almost as though I could feel the sand and the breeze and the warm nights. I think McDonnell could be a phenomenal writer, and it's impressive that this is her first book - it's just a shame I didn't relate more to the characters in this very character-driven novel.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
The Doctor and the Diva is set in turn of the century Boston and tells the story of a gifted amateur opera singer (Erika) and her wealthy, globe trotting husband (Peter) with a seemingly perfect life. Except, Erika and Peter had everything but a baby. At a funeral, they meet Doctor Ravell, a Harvard educated obstetrician renowned as a fertility expert, but with a weakness for women. Doctor Ravell attempts to treat Erika and Peter's infertility at a time when it is widely assumed that only women are to blame for inability to conceive. Ultimately, Erika has a child but it isn't as glamorous as she expects. Because of spoilers I won't say more about the plot, but it really isn't as trite as I make it out to be - there are many twists and turns. The novel isn't JUST about fertility either - there is romance, there are details about the opera world, there is a lot of raw emotion.
I was immediately hooked into this story line. I also greatly enjoyed the authors characterizations of Peter, Erika, and Dr. Ravell. I thought that they were all characters with positive and negative traits and flaws. None of them stood out as awful people, but none were saints either. I also found the story of early obstetrics to be interesting. I think the main flaw is that at times - especially the beginning, when the characters were not as well fleshed out (and when the author details Dr. Ravell's romantic life) - I felt that the author made the novel too "Hollywood." As I delved depper into the novel, I found that it had an Edith Wharton feel, which i really enjoyed. Also, the characters became less flat and became well rounded. They also grew as people, which I appreciated, though not always for the better. Some passages were beautifully written and the author did a really great job tying Erika's passion - music - to her expression of emotion. Some aspects of the story were predictable (I was not surprised by Dr. Ravell's chosen fertility treatment), but others were especially surprising - I think Peter surprised me the most.
All in all, the Doctor and the Diva is a good read. It has a lot going for it - various interesting settings in the early 1900s, fertility issues, the opera profession, and interesting characters. I think it would be a good pick for Book Clubs.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2011
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is well-written, seemingly well-researched, and despite the fact that it was hard to like the main characters, it kept my interest and moved along quite rapidly. I don't understand a man, so eager to become a father, who then can ship his son off to boarding school and pay little attention to him, or a mother who is far more interested in her singing career than in her son, or the doctor who is so weak that he leaves his practice rather than defend his reputation. Nonetheless, it was worth the time spent reading it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2012
This is a very interesting period story about a talented well to do young married woman who wants nothing more than to become an Opera star in Italy. Her husband wants children and a young doctor enters the story as there are fertility issues. The story becomes quite engaging as the "diva's" passion for Opera causes turmoil for everyone involved. It's thought provoking as a book group to discuss the many choices and consequences the characters have made.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2012
Wow. I was overwhelmed by this book and read it in two days on my Kindle. Yes, it was tragic. Yes, the characters are flawed. Isn't that what makes a great book? Nobody was more flawed than Emma Bovary, but Flaubert managed to immortalize her foibles. So it is with the impulsive Erica and her longings. A mezzo, not a soprano; a talent which is inconsistent, (and a woman not that young), we get the feeling she is never really going to make it; yet she is driven--to the point of abandonning the child she adores to pursue a career which may or may not materialize. Along the way, McDonnell tugs at our heartstrings, as we see her actually lose her son. But what a story! And what great writing! A real tour de force. I loved it!