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  • The Doctor's Daughter
  • Written by Hilma Wolitzer
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  • Written by Hilma Wolitzer
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A novel by the bestselling author of Hearts

Written by Hilma WolitzerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Hilma Wolitzer

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41700-8
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In her first work of fiction in more than a decade, award-winning novelist Hilma Wolitzer brilliantly renders the intimate details of ordinary life and exposes a host of hidden truths. The Doctor’s Daughter is a haunting portrait of a woman coming to terms with her family history and the fallibility of memory.

One morning, Alice Brill awakes with a sudden awareness that something is wrong. There’s a hollowness in her chest, and a sensation of dread that she can’t identify or shake. Was it something she’s done, or forgotten to do? As she scours her mind for the source of her unease, she confronts an array of disturbing possibilities.

First, there is her marriage, a once vibrant relationship that now languishes stasis. Then there’s her idle, misdirected younger son, who always needs bailing out of some difficulty. Or perhaps Alice’s trepidation is caused by the loss of her career as an editor at a large publishing house, and the new path she’s paved for herself as a freelance book doctor. Or it might be the real doctor in her life: her father. Formerly one of New York’s top surgeons, he now rests in a nursing home, his mind gripped by dementia. And the Eden that was Alice’s childhood–the material benefits and reflected glory of being a successful doctor’s daughter, the romance of her parents’ famously perfect marriage–makes her own domestic life seem fatally flawed.

While struggling to find the root of her restlessness, Alice is buoyed by her discovery of a talented new writer, a man who works by day as a machinist in Michigan. Soon their interactions and feelings intensify, and Alice realizes that the mystery she’s been trying to solve lies not in the present, as she had assumed, but in the past–and in the secrets of a marriage that was never as perfect as it appeared.

Like the best works of Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, and Gail Godwin, The Doctor’s Daughter is private yet universal, luminous and revelatory–and marks the reemergence of a singular talent in American writing.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

The moment I awoke I knew that something was terribly wrong. I could feel it in that place behind my breastbone, where bad news always slides in like junk mail through a slot. It was there that I first acknowledged my parents would die someday (“Oh, sweetheart, but not for such a long, long time!”); where I knew I was ugly and would never be loved; where I suffered spasms of regret about my marriage and my children, and fear of their deaths and of my own. God knows there were plenty of things wrong in the larger world I could easily have named, and that aroused a similar sense of dread, but whatever was lodged in my chest that April morning was personal, not global. I knew that much, at least.

Was it something I’d done, or forgotten to do? There was a vague suggestion of amnesia, of loss, but when I tried to pin down its source, it proved to be elusive, a dream dissolving in daylight. In fact, I’d had a dream just before waking, but the content was obscured by a kind of white scrim. The only thing I could remember was the whiteness. And I couldn’t discuss any of this with Everett—we’d quarreled again the night before and were being stonily polite. And what if my awful feeling turned out to be about him?

So I put it all aside while we ate breakfast, chaperoned by CNN and the Times, and chatted about Iraq and the weather and the eggs on our plates. I told myself that this was what long-married people do, even when things are good between them. Then I had a flash of my parents in their nightclothes, slow-dancing to the radio in their Riverdale kitchen.

After Ev left for work, I grabbed my bag and left the apartment, too. I had to go to the bank, and then I was going to buy a sandwich and sit near the East River to read manuscripts. Maybe the bank would be my last stop—it wasn’t safe to walk around this crazy city with that much money.

Our doorman and the doorman from the building next door were outside in the sunlight, taking a breather from the bell jars of their lobbies. It must have rained the night before; the drying pavement gave off that sour-sweet musk I love, and up and down York Avenue, the ginkgo and honey locusts were suddenly, lushly budding. At fifty-one and with everything I knew, I was still such a sucker for spring. I probed for that sensitive spot in my chest as I walked, almost jogged, along in my jeans and Reeboks, outpacing kids in business suits, and it seemed diminished by then, practically gone. It probably really was only the residue of a bad dream.

Outside Sloan-Kettering, patients tethered to their IVs were smoking, the way my girlfriends and I used to smoke near our high school, looking furtive and defiant at once. My father drove by in his Lincoln one day and caught me. “Alice!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Oh, shit,” I muttered, feeling my face and neck blotch, that curse of redheads. I dropped the cigarette—a stylish, mentholated Kool—and tried to make a run for it. But he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the car, where he bellowed and shook me, while my friends gaped at us through the tinted windows as if we were fighting fish in an aquarium.

It was the worst thing I could have done; my father was a surgeon, the venerated chief of surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. He drove me directly there that day, and waved lurid photographs of cancerous lungs in my face, and made me look through his microscope at cells gone amok, like adolescent girls.

That wasn’t the first time I’d disappointed him. I wasn’t a boy, to begin with; I wasn’t even the next best thing, a girl with an aptitude for science. And I didn’t look like my mother. That day in the lab, I gravely promised him I’d never smoke again. “Daddy, I won’t, I swear,” I said. “I don’t even like it.” I think I even coughed a few times, for dramatic effect. Sin upon sin. In truth, I loved smoking, the deliciously acrid taste and how worldly I thought I looked with a cigarette drooping from my ragged, ink-stained fingers.

I was fifteen years old then and I still called him Daddy. I never stopped calling him that. And my Mother was “Mother,” always, like the benevolent queen in the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Goose Girl,” which she often read to me at bedtime. I’m still haunted by its recurring lament:

Alas! Queen’s daughter, there thou gangest.

If thy mother knew thy fate,

Her heart would break with grief so great.

As a child, I didn’t really get all that archaic usage, or other words in the story, like cambric and knacker. But listening to my mother read “The Goose Girl” aloud as she lay next to me at night initiated my lifelong romance with language. The plot was electrifying, with its drama of switched identities, talking drops of blood, and a decapitated horse’s head (also verbal), more than a century before Mario Puzo. And the message, that children, especially girls, are responsible for their mothers’ happiness, was profound and unsettling. I became determined never to break my mother’s heart, any more than I would break her back by inadvertently stepping on a sidewalk crack. And I meant to keep my promise to my father about not smoking again.

Passing the Mary Manning Walsh home at 71st Street, I thought of him, imprisoned since early winter in that other place, the one he’d always called, with a theatrical shudder, the “Cadillac” of nursing homes. “I’d rather be dead, Alice,” he once said, pointedly, as if he were extracting another, unspoken promise. The Hebrew Home for the Aged isn’t very far from the house where we once lived, although since his confinement my father didn’t remember that proximity or appreciate the sad irony of it. He didn’t remember a lot of things, including me most of the time, a likely source of misery in any grown child’s breast. But somehow I knew it wasn’t the source of mine. Maybe that was because I’d had several months to deal with the gradual death of my father’s personality, a dress rehearsal for the big event.

Occasionally, he would still ask after my mother. “And how is Helen?” was the way he’d put it, a ghost-like version of his old courtly self. The first time he asked, I was so dismayed I couldn’t speak. After that, I tried telling him the truth, but he always received it as fresh, agonizing news, and he’d grieve for a few awful moments before he went blank again. I couldn’t keep putting him, and myself, through that, so I began to simply say, “She’s fine.” But once I saw him flinch when I said it, and I amended my lie to reflect his absence from home. “Getting along as best she can, Daddy,” I said.

“But who’s taking care of her?” he asked, with the perseverance of demented logic.

The worms, I thought, but I said, “Why, I am. And Faye, of course.” And he finally sank back in his wheelchair, assuaged. Faye had been our family’s housekeeper during my childhood—if he could bend time, well, then so could I. As I crossed East End Avenue to enter Carl Schurz Park, I realized that I hadn’t visited my father in almost two weeks. I had to go and see him soon, but not on such a perfect day.

There was the usual pedestrian parade in the park. Runners went by wearing wristbands and earphones. Babies were being pushed in their strollers and the elderly in their wheelchairs, like a fast-forwarded film on the human life cycle. The pigeons paced, as if they’d forgotten they could fly, and dogs circled and sniffed one another while their owners, in a tangle of leashes, exchanged shy, indulgent smiles.

The homeless man who screamed was quietly sunning himself on my favorite bench, so I sat a few benches away, next to a woman absorbed in a paperback. I glanced at the cover, expecting a bodice ripper or a whodunit, but she was reading Proust, in French. Touché. The river glittered and flowed on the periphery of my vision as I took the manuscripts out of my bag. I was sure they would distract me from whatever was worrying me; they always did, even when I knew what was on my mind. There were four new submissions that day, three nonfiction proposals and a few chapters of a novel in progress. I began to read, and quickly set aside, the first three submissions. After all this time, I can usually tell before the end of the first paragraph if a writer has any talent.

My training began in 1974 at the literary publishing house of Grace & Findlay, where I mostly answered the phones, typed and filed for the editors, and read through the slush pile. It was only a summer internship, between Swarthmore and an MFA, and before I knew it some lowly reader at another publisher was going to discover my novel in their slush pile and make me rich and famous. That never happened, though. All I ever received were standard letters of rejection, the ones that say “Thank you for thinking of us, but your manuscript doesn’t meet our needs right now,” with the hidden subtext: This is precisely what we hate. Do try us again when hell freezes over.

A few years later, I joined the enemy, becoming an assistant editor at G&F, and I was still there, in a senior position, last June, when they merged with a multinational communications group and let me go. I understood that my firing was merely a fiscal matter, and I saw it coming, like a storm darkening a radar screen. But I felt shocked and betrayed anyway, even with the generous severance package.

At first I missed everything about my job—the physical place, my colleagues, my daily sense of purpose, and especially the work itself—with an ache akin to mourning. I decided that this was what it would be like to be dead, but still hovering restlessly at the edges of the living world. There were a few job offers at less prestigious houses, with lower pay and reduced status, and I swiftly, scornfully declined them. Ev says that I went nuts for a while, and I suppose he’s right, if crying jags and episodes of misplaced rage are valid clinical signs. “Al,” he reasoned one night, “you’ll do something else, something new.” What did he have in mind—tap dancing? Brain surgery? Part of the trouble was that I believed he was secretly pleased.

He had been in competition with me ever since graduate school in Iowa, where we’d met in a fiction workshop. Even his strapping good looks seemed like a weapon then. To be fair, I was pretty critical of his work, too, a defensive response, really. Everyone there was madly competitive and ambitious, despite the caveats of our instructor, Phil Santo, a mild- tempered, mid-list novelist who kept reiterating that he wasn’t running a writing contest—there would be no winners or losers—and that we only had to compete with the most recent drafts of our own stories. “Make it new!” he exhorted us. “Make it better!”

Of course there were winners; soon after graduation two of the men in our workshop went on to capture the fame and fortune we had all craved. And the rest of us, accordingly, became losers. Ev never published anything, either, but I think we both knew that I had come out ahead. At least I’d become a handmaiden in heaven, while he ended up at his family’s printing firm, Carroll Graphics—brochures, letterheads, that sort of thing.

So, right after my dismissal, which my friend Violet Steinhorn wryly referred to as my “fall from Grace and Findlay,” I read all of Ev’s unexpected kindnesses to me, like the freshly squeezed orange juice and impromptu foot massages, as condescending and, at heart, unkind. In return, I withheld my sexual favors for a while, or gave them robotically, until I was proved to be right.

At Violet’s urging I went into therapy for a few months, where I mostly wept while the psychologist, Andrea Stern, passed a box of Kleenex to me and crossed and uncrossed her legs. I stopped seeing her soon after she pointed out, and I agreed, that I was avoiding any reference to anything else in my current or past life besides my job. “I can’t right now,” I said. “Everything hurts too much.” And she invited me to come back whenever I was ready.

Then, slowly, I began to recover on my own, to actually enjoy my newfound freedom to read just for pleasure, and go to museums or the movies in the middle of the afternoon. One day I made a lunch date with Lucy Seo, a book designer at G&F I’d stayed in touch with. She was full of industry chatter, and she kept looking at her watch because she had to get back to work. I guess it was contagious or still in my blood, because I became just as restive. I had to work, too. That’s when I came up with my brainstorm, and placed ads in The New York Review of Books and Poets and Writers. “The book doctor is in. Seasoned editor will help you to make your manuscript better.”

The response was immediate and enormous. Some of the letters, of course, were from the kinds of crazies and lonely souls I used to hear from when I was a reader at G&F: people burning to write about their abductions to other planets, or paeans in verse to their departed pets. But there were serious, interesting proposals, too—more than I could handle—and the recovered satisfaction of doing something I liked that was also worthwhile.

The ad was a little precious, and I couldn’t help thinking how disdainful my father would have been if he’d seen it. He didn’t believe even PhDs had the right to call themselves doctors. Violet, another physician’s daughter, teased me about practicing without a license. And she was right, it did seem slightly illicit. But as the more open-minded Lucy pointed out, editing is actually analogous to medicine, with its orderly process of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment.

I never made any promises to my clients about publication, but most of the projects I took on seemed to have a decent shot, and by choosing carefully I still allowed myself lots of time for personal pursuits and for my family. After I left the park that April day, I was going to go up the street to the ATM at Chase and withdraw five hundred dollars from my private money market account. In a day or two I would give it all to my son Scott, who had asked me for a loan.

He’d said that it was just a temporary cash-flow problem, but he hadn’t paid back the other, smaller “loans” I’d made to him in recent months. “This isn’t for drugs, Scotty, is it?” I asked, and he held both hands up as if to halt oncoming traffic. “Hey, whoa!” he said. And then he explained that he’d just gone overboard on some things he needed, clothes and CDs, stuff like that.


From the Hardcover edition.
Hilma Wolitzer|Author Q&A

About Hilma Wolitzer

Hilma Wolitzer - The Doctor's Daughter

Photo © Deborah Copaken Kogan

Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels, including Summer Reading, The Doctor’s Daughter, Hearts, Ending, and Tunnel of Love, as well as a nonfiction book, The Company of Writers. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award.  She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia University.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Talk with Hilma Wolitzer

First off, why more than a decade between novels?
I could say that life got in the way, but that would only be partly true and also kind of whiny. I’ve written prolifically at other times when I was just as busy or stressed; most writers do. Whenever people asked why I wasn’t writing, I’d say that I was blocked, which always sounded more like a plumbing problem to me than a creative one. Maybe I just had nothing to say, or maybe I actually was working all that time, on some subterranean level, because when I finally started writing The Doctor’s Daughter, it came pretty quickly. The whole process is still pretty much of a mystery, though; I just feel very lucky when it happens.

What drew you to tell this particular story?
My novels are always character-driven, so as usual, the main character began living in my head and telling me her personal story. But I also felt compelled, at this later stage in my own life, to write about women (and men, too) coming into middle age wondering if they’ve made the right choices, in love and in work, and if there’s still enough time to make new ones. It’s such a crucial juncture, and you seem to arrive there so suddenly. I mean, one day you’re a young, vital, sexy, and optimistic person, and the next day a copy of “Modern Maturity” and those ads for long-term care insurance arrive in the mail. As one of the characters in The Doctor’s Daughter says, about her friend’s so-called midlife crisis, “Why not? This is the crossroads, kiddo, when you’re looking back at all the mistakes you made, and ahead, well, ahead to old age and death.”

Your protagonist Alice Brill is the daughter of a doctor and is herself a “book doctor.” What is it about the word “doctor” that defines Alice’s life?
The opening of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm” is at the heart of Alice’s story, because she feels so guilty about something she’s done, a violation of a promise she made as a child. And her father was a famous surgeon, so the family’s life revolved around him. Other doctors, especially therapists (both good and bad), play an important part in Alice’s odyssey. Because of that exposure to the medical world, she and her best friend, another doctor’s daughter, consider themselves “informed hypochondriacs.” Alice doesn’t become a physician, or marry one, as her father had hoped. But as a book doctor (or freelance editor), she’s in another “helping” profession, even though she sometimes feels as if she’s practicing without a license.

Alice faces obstacles that will resonate with many baby boomers as they start to enter the latter half of their lives–the loss of one’s parents, a marriage on auto-pilot, grown children who have yet to become “adults,” etc. Yet, the story is specific to Alice down to the tiniest details. How does the telling of one story illuminate themes that speak to all of us?
I think the shock of recognition–a sense of emotional truth–is what makes any novel work. The ones I love to read have unique characters whose concerns are distinctly their own, yet are universal at the same time, so that I might be moved to think: Why, I feel that way, too. It’s similar to the empathy that sparks deep friendships and love affairs in the real world. The reader/writer relationship requires access to the characters’ inner lives as well as to their actions.


(over)
The Boston Globe once said of your work, “Wolitzer makes art of ordinary life.” Is that your goal when you sit down to write? Or do you simply try to tell a story?
I have no other goal than to tell a good story, one that I might like to read myself. The thing is that “ordinary life” often seems extraordinary to me. As the British writer Henry Green once said, “If it happens, it matters.”

Is THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER autobiographical?
No, Alice’s story is a total invention. I wasn’t a doctor’s daughter, and I wasn’t a petted only child growing up in suburban privilege. I was the middle one of three daughters sharing a bedroom in a working-class household in Brooklyn. And The Doctor’s Daughter doesn’t reflect on my husband and children, who, like most writers’ families, are often the objects of curious scrutiny. But some of the observations in the book do come from my own life. I live on the upper East Side of Manhattan now, and both of my parents became senile in old age, so the descriptions of Alice’s neighborhood and of the nursing home where her father ends up are first-hand. The writing workshop scenes are loosely based on my teaching experience, and I guess my own sensibility and world view pervade the whole novel. Didn’t I just say that it wasn’t autobiographical?

The institution of marriage and all that entails–passion, partnership, support–gets tested in THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER. What is it about Alice and Everett’s marriage that keep us emotionally invested in their lives and their future together?
I hope that readers will care about Alice and Ev because they identify with them and like them, and because their precarious marriage seems real, even familiar. The writer has to feel that way, too, though; you can’t expect anyone else to care about your characters if you don’t. But a happy or unhappy ending can’t just be tacked on by an omniscient writer. It has to evolve naturally from the story, to be earned by what precedes it. So I didn’t really know the fate of Alice and Ev’s marriage until I wrote the book. You could say that I keep writing for the same reason I keep reading–to find out what happens.

Your daughter, Meg Wolitzer, is a successful novelist. How does it feel to have another writer in the family?
It feels very good. But there are actually two other writers in the family. Meg’s husband, Richard Panek, is a journalist, so we’re a kind of cottage industry. I love all of my kids, but the writing adds another dimension to my relationship with Meg, who’s smart and funny and generous. We talk about work a lot and show each other pages, for criticism and support. E-mail and the telephone have replaced the umbilical cord.

What’s next for Hilma Wolitzer?
Definitely not another long stretch between novels; I just can’t afford to indulge myself that way anymore. In fact, I’ve already started writing the next book. There are three main characters this time–three women from different social classes–whose lives and stories collide, so my head is pretty crowded. This is solitary work, but it’s never really lonely.



From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“A wonderfully fluent blend of intelligence, tenderness, and vitality. [The Doctor’s Daughter] fearlessly explores the difficult terrain of the family romance and the unromantic decisions we all make as we try to make sense of our lives and our memories.”
–Mary Gordon

“The Doctor’s Daughter marks Hilma Wolitzer’s much-anticipated return to the world of fiction. It is a beautiful tale of coming apart and reconciliation.”
–A. M. Homes

“An exquisitely nuanced novel that brilliantly examines one of the abiding truths of the human condition: the quest for self never ceases. Hilma Wolitzer’s new novel is just cause for celebration, as it shows her at the peak of her prodigious powers.”
–Robert Olen Butler

“Hilma Wolitzer’s characters are as real as the people next door. And, oh, the eye and ear at work here! The Doctor’s Daughter is a book I both admired and devoured.”
–Elinor Lipman

“To read Hilma Wolitzer is to laugh in a special way and to allow yourself little intermissions of sheer satisfaction in which you lay the open book facedown on your heart and snuggle with the human race. The Doctor’s Daughter is her masterpiece.”
–Gail Godwin

“This intensely readable book unfolds so gracefully that we are hardly aware of the many layers of the journey on which it takes us.”
–Elizabeth Strout

“Hilma Wolitzer’s The Doctor’s Daughter reminds us what novels can do. She takes a simple, touching, human situation and enlarges it into a heartbreaking and permanent story of loss and renewal.”
–Adam Gopnik

“This is a lovely novel–wonderfully well written, intelligent, perceptive, and rich.”
–Elizabeth Berg


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The New York Times Book Review called The Doctor’s Daughter a coming-of-age novel, while People, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Library Journal referred to Alice Brill’s midlife crisis. Did Alice come of age at fifty-one, or did she suffer from a midlife crisis? Can these milestones overlap?

2. Helen and Sam’s seemingly perfect marriage shadowed Alice’s marriage with Ev. Do you agree with Dr. Stern’s affirmation that your parents’ relationship directly shapes your own? If so, how might Al and Ev’s marriage affect their children’s relationships?

3. Alice constantly strives to achieve a balance within herself and in her relationships. What elements does Alice seek to balance? Does she succeed?

4. Alice is at times overly protective of her children, especially Scotty. Do you think her softness is detrimental to their development? On page 253, Al and Ev agree to take joint responsibility for Scotty’s struggles, admitting that his failures are the result of “alternating fits of indulgence and control.” Do you agree?

5. Does Alice’s affair with Michael help or hinder her development? Did it affect the success of his book, Walking to Europe?

6. When Alice finally realizes that her father was having an affair with Parksie, she forgives her old friend and seeks to make her comfortable. When she sees her father after he dies, she thinks “Old gander . . . Cheating bastard. Herr Doktor. My love.” (page 228) How is she able to reconcile her hurt and anger with unfailing love?

7. When Alice brings Michael to the nursing home, her father thinks she is her own mother. He calls Michael her paramour, and asks if she is trying to get even (page 149). Do you think Helen confronted Sam about his affair? Why or why not? Do you think she ever sought love outside the bounds of their marriage?

8. How do you interpret the last line of Helen’s enigmatic poem? Who is the goose? What is that feathery thing?

9. Sam writes an illegible letter addressed to “Darling.” For whom is it meant? What do you think he wanted to say?

10. Do you believe that the knowledge of Sam’s affair affected Helen’s writing career? Did her ambition flag? Do you think, as Alice asserts, that both she and her father sabotaged her mother’s career? Why does Alice stop writing? What gives her the strength to begin again?

11. How does Al and Ev’s relationship change after their reconciliation? Do you believe their marriage is stronger or more tenuous? Do you agree with Alice that “love [is] always a reasonable prospect” (page 248)?


  • The Doctor's Daughter by Hilma Wolitzer
  • March 27, 2007
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $15.00
  • 9780345485854

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