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Verghese's a great writer-this effort is very disappointing.
on March 13, 2002
A lot of people, if one reads the previous reviews, see this as a novel of male friendship and bonding. I do not see it that way at all. Rather, I see it as a novel about men who are congenital loners trying to break out and find a meaningful relationship--unfortunately without success. That failure seriously undermines the premise of the novel.
Dr. Verghese, the author and narrator (although cited as fiction the book obviously is heavily autobiographical) and a fourth-year medical student named David Smith, encounter one another while working at the local teaching hospital in El Paso, Texas. Both are in the midst of breakups in their marital/significant other relationships and desperate for some sort of trusting, stable emotional bond. When they discover a mutual love of tennis-David has had limited semi-pro experience, Verghese has been enamored with the game all his life as an escape mechanism from his childhood loneliness-the basis is found for the beginning of the development of a relationship.
Both bring substantial emotional baggage to the relationship. It develops that David is a "recovered" drug addict. Verghese, stigmatized by his minority status and unable to relate to anyone except through very limiting roles (patient, neighbor, boss) is divorcing and managing it very badly. That the relationship seems to work at all is due to the role reversal it requires-David, the student and receiver of medical knowledge becomes the teacher of tennis wisdom and Verghese the receiver of same.
This is a deep, complex & ambitious book that fails. It fails because the central story, the relationship between David and Verghese never really exists-they never truly bond on an emotional level at any point. By the end we are supposed to be moved by the somehow deeply moving effect David has had on everyone in sight-Verghese, David's women, the other hospital folks, the local addict community and, presumably, the reader. Yet the man never really, at any point, truly touches anyone in the book at any sort of human level.
There are worthwhile elements to the book. One does get a genuine feel for what teaching hospital life is like. Also, one gets a feel for what life in El Paso, Texas, a very unusual community I like a lot, it like. Verghese's love for tennis is genuine and his prose about the sport is almost poetic. There are little historical snippets-mini biographical pieces, really-about the lives and quirks of some of tennis' great players that are interesting and informative. And, finally, Verghese is a gifted writer with an engaging and riveting writing voice.
In the end, I was really disappointed, though I was glad I read the book. But, the failure to deliver a convincing central story left this as much less of a book than it could have been.