Book Review: The Doctor and the Diva

The Doctor and the DivaThe Doctor and the Diva
Adrienne McDonnell
Little, Brown Book Group, 2011

My Goodreads rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been looking forward to reading this book for weeks now. I don’t know why. Something to do with the cover, which in my edition uses lots of bold reds and a close-up of a fantastically lovely Spanish-looking diva. So when my mother got to it first, I naturally asked her what she thought of it. She just shrugged, “It was ok.”

Well that was disappointing, but I read it anyway. It’s not unheard of for me to like different books than my mother (Exhibit A: My shelves full of paranormal fiction).

At first I thought I was going to have a completely different reaction to it than my mother. The characters were striking, the period detail interesting but not overwhelming, the story full of just enough conflict to keep me reading. I swallowed up the first half of the book in one delicious gulp.

But in the end, I had to agree with my mother. When my husband asked me what I thought of the book last night, I said, “Meh.” It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t amazing either. It is a solid three-star book.

When I entered my usual stars-only no-comment first review on Goodreads early this morning, I noticed that everybody else who rated this book apparently thought it was a solid three-star book too. Which got me wondering: What makes it that way?

From the summary, you’d think it would be amazing. The action takes place in Boston, Venezuela, and Italy in the early 1900s (one of my favorite times). Deception and scandal abound. And of course, there’s a woman risking everything to pursue her dreams. Even better, McDonnell’s writing is solid, with nothing getting in the way of the story. So why the “meh?”

For me, it has to do with conflict. The first part of the book has it, the rest pretty much doesn’t.

*******Warning: Here Be Spoilers*********

In the first third, Erika’s ambitions to be a world-renowned opera singer spar nicely with her husband Peter’s and even her obstetrician’s vested interest in getting her pregnant. The end of that pregnancy is heart-breaking, and set my expectations up for an equally enthralling close to the book.

Unfortunately, McDonnell didn’t quite deliver. She almost did, and her story kept my attention long enough to finish the book, but from the moment Erika arrives in Italy it seemed to me that McDonnell skipped all the hard conflicty bits.

Erika is not cut off from her family for abandoning her son and husband. Sure, her brother doesn’t seem to like her much any more and her husband divorces her, but the money from her inheritance keeps flowing and her life remains essentially comfortable and blessed. A little bit is made of how much she misses her child, there are a few instances of hunger, but nothing really sustained in terms of the hardship of making it as an opera singer on her own in Italy. She finds a teacher quickly, and when time comes for her debut, it’s a smashing success and she lands one of the most reputable agents in Italy. Then nothing. A span of several months in which people ignore Erika and she deals with rejection is almost completely glossed over.

In other places piles of conflict are ignored in ways that don’t seem to comport with life. For example, after three years of being abroad without sending any word to her son and after losing legal custody of her son to Peter, Erika comes back to Boston, collects her son from school, and takes him to Venezuela for weeks (months?) without telling anyone except her remarkably indulgent father. Her son forgives her for abandoning him within the first few days of her return. Ok. I can wrap my head around that. He’s only nine and he did really miss her.

But I can’t wrap my head around Peter’s response. Peter, the full-grown man whose child she stole, a world traveler in his own right, does nothing about the fact that his ex-wife kidnapped his son and took him halfway around the world. I find the complete lack of consequence Erika incurs for this rash action dubious at best. After all, this is a man who divorced her in a time when divorce just wasn’t done. It’s not like he’s a stranger to taking legal action.

Personally I think it would have been a better book if the consequences for Erika’s actions weren’t ignored and the other characters actually were allowed to get mad and stay mad at Erika, forcing her into some sort of personal growth. Instead, when Erika returns her son to Peter, she returns to Italy and achieves success at the expense of someone else very quickly thereafter. The whole thing is very neatly wrapped in just a few pages with everyone in the book getting at least part of what they want, and Erika almost all.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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