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  • Written by Claire Holden Rothman
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  • The Heart Specialist
  • Written by Claire Holden Rothman
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Written by Claire Holden RothmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Claire Holden Rothman


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On Sale: June 07, 2011
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-56947-946-9
Published by : Soho Press Soho Press
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Set in Quebec at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, The Heart Specialist is the epic story of Agnes White, a lonely orphaned girl fascinated by the "wrong" things—microscopes, dissections, and anatomy instead of more ladylike interests—who rises to the status of one of the world's most celebrated pioneering women doctors. Not only does she break through patriarchal academic barriers; she masters the science of the human heart, becoming a scholar of international fame, all in a place and time inimical to intelligent women.

When Agnes is small, her father, a French-Canadian doctor living in Montreal, is charged with the murder of his handicapped sister. Although he is eventually acquitted, his reputation is ruined, and he flees, abandoning Agnes and her pregnant mother. Less than a year later, her mother dies of consumption, leaving Agnes and her baby sister Laure on their own. Agnes's sparse memories of her father have an abiding impact on her, and she is determined to find him, as well as to follow in his footsteps as a doctor, even though medical schools in Canada are closed to women at the time. She eventually gets her degree and finds a niche for herself as the curator of the McGill University pathology museum. But even as her professional star rises, her life is solitary and her happiness remains incomplete because of her missing father. One of the only clues in her quest to find him is a strange, misshapen heart that teaches her an invaluable lesson about love. Agnes ultimately must recognize that though she's a world-reknowned expert on the human heart, she still doesn't understand the her own.

Inspired by the career of Maude Abbott, one of Canada's first female physicians, The Heart Specialist is a novel about the mysterious, painful journey into selfhood.

From the Hardcover edition.




All morning I had been waiting for death, even though when it finally
came the change was so incremental I nearly missed it. I had laid
the squirrel out on a crate and covered it with a rag to keep it from
freezing. Blood no longer flowed from the wound on its head,
although it still looked red and angry. A dog or some other animal
must have clamped its jaws around the skull, but somehow it had
managed to escape, dragging itself through the snow to Grandmother’s
property, where I had discovered it that morning near the
barn door. It had been breathing then, the body still trembling and

Now the breathing was stopped and its eyes were filmy. I blew on
my fingers, which had numbed with cold, and went to my instruments
bag. It was not leather like the one used by Archie Osborne,
the doctor for St. Andrews East. It was burlap and had once held
potatoes. Along with most of its contents, it had been pilfered from
Grandmother’s kitchen. I took out a paring knife, a whetting stone
and a box of pins in a tin that used to hold throat lozenges dusted
with sugar. The blade of my knife was razor-thin and nicked in several
spots. It didn’t look like much, but it was as good as any
scalpel. I rubbed the whetting stone along the blade a few times
then cracked the ice in the bucket with my heel and dipped in the
knife to clean off the sugar dust.

My dead house left a lot to be desired. It was too cold in January
for stays of decent duration. After two winters of working here,
however, I was accustomed to it. I had organized it well, with microscope
in the far corner hidden beneath a tarpaulin and twenty-one of
Grandmother’s Mason jars lined up on the floor against one wall,
concealed by straw. Above the jars, on a shelf fashioned out of a
board, was my special collection, which consisted of three dead
ladybugs, the husk of a cicada beetle, the desiccated jaw of a cow
and my prize: a pair of butterflies mounted with thread and glass
rods in the only true laboratory bottle I’d been able to salvage from
my father’s possessions two years earlier, before Grandmother had
them carted away to the junkyard. I took only three things for
myself — my father’s microscope and slides, a textbook and that
bottle. Any more and my grandmother would surely have noticed.

To a person glancing through the door, my dissection room
appeared to be ordinary barn storage. Grandmother had forbidden
me and Laure to play here, claiming the floorboards had rotted and
we would fall through and break our legs. I had to use the back
entrance for my visits, accessed by a path in the forest that abutted
Grandmother’s land.

The squirrel’s yellow teeth poked through its lips. Its paws,
curled to the chest as if it were begging, resisted my efforts to open
them. The animal was already beginning to stiffen, but whether this
was from cold or rigor mortis I could not tell. Its legs were also hard
to manoeuvre, but somehow I managed to get the body done, laying
him out on his back like a little man. My pins had a delicate
confectionary smell that was incongruous with the odour of newly
dead squirrel. I sniffed as I fastened him down, wincing as the metal
pricks punctured his hide. The last preparatory step involved the
microscope, which I lugged to the crate next to the dissection area
for easy access.

My knife pierced the belly skin, releasing a gush of pink fluid that
arced up, splattering the camel-hair coat Grandmother made for me
last Christmas. I stepped back, staring stupidly at the line streaking
my front, then reached for my apron. I had been careless. A fault I
knew well, as Grandmother pointed it out to me every single day.
She was right. I tended to forget about the most basic things: my hair
was often half undone, my stockings sagged at my ankles.

Up until that day in the barn I had worked mostly with plants
and insects. The closest I had come to anything alive were the tiny
creatures inhabiting the scum of ponds or nestling in the bones of
meat on the turn. This was the first time an animal with blood still
warm in its veins had fallen into my hands. I cut again, this time
down the middle, adding two perpendicular slits at the ends to form
doors in the animal’s belly. These I peeled back and pinned, exposing
the dark innards. My fingers were wet and red. Behind me there was
a gasp.

Laure was in the doorway, mittens covering her mouth, her eyes
starting to roll up in their sockets. She swayed, her pupils expanding
into black holes.

I swung my hands in back of me. “Laure,” I said quickly. “It’s all
right. Nothing. I’ll wash it away.” I plunged my hands into the bucket.

My sister is a very particular case. She cannot watch the gutting
of a chicken. We have to make sure the kitchen door is shut fast and
she is safely off in her bedroom when we prepare flesh for dinner.

Laure had now stopped swaying, which I took to be encouraging,
but her pupils had shrunk to pinpricks. She was standing as
stiff as the squirrel on my table. While she stood there like a corpse,
I rushed about, covering everything with the potential to upset her. I
pulled the strip of flannel back over the squirrel, but immediately a
ruby eye appeared on the abdomen and began to grow. I tore off
my apron and once again plunged my hands into the icy bucket to
scrub them.

Laure moaned. Tears always followed the trance phase, with a
headache that could keep her in bed for days. I called to her, but of
course she was past listening. After another minute or so she was
able to move and limped off toward the house, weeping and mumbling
for Grandmother. The doctor we consulted gave it a French
name: Petit Mal. He said it was less serious than Grand Mal, which
was a full-blown epileptic seizure, but nonetheless, it was a condition
we had to watch. No one knew the cause, although trauma — a
childhood fever or even an emotion — was often at the root. The
primary symptom was absence. Laure slipped into a trance and nothing
anyone said or did could shake her out of it.

The squirrel’s body was growing stiffer by the second, yet all I
had managed were the preliminaries. I felt like weeping myself, in
pure frustration. Laure almost never came to the barn. Why had
she picked this of all possible days to try and find me? The squirrel
grinned in silent mockery. You see, it seemed to say. Stick your
fingers in the belly of a corpse and see if trouble doesn’t follow. I
closed my eyes to shut out his yellow teeth. If I wanted to do any
work at all it had to be now. Perhaps Laure wouldn’t be coherent
and Grandmother would simply put her to bed. It was a slim chance
but it was not a crime to hope. I reached for my apron.

By the time Grandmother arrived I had managed to locate the
heart and what I suspected must be the liver. Grandmother marched
into the barn, her old eyes narrow and grim. She is a short woman,
barely five feet tall, but people think she is taller because of how she
walks. She would have made a great general in the Army, and not
just because of her posture. She was wearing my dead grandfather’s
workboots, the ones she kept by the kitchen door for emergencies,
and she had forgotten her hat in her haste. Her hair had come partially
undone and a couple of silver strands were snaking, Medusa-like,
down her back. I had never before seen her in such disarray, and we
stood gaping at each other for several seconds, quite unable to speak.
Worse still, she was not alone. She had dragged Miss Skerry along
with her from the house. Miss Skerry was the new governess,
brought in expressly to “smooth my edges,” as Grandmother put it,
and assist my passage into womanhood.

Their eyes took in my knife and the filthy butcher’s apron. Then
they saw the squirrel with its abdomen slit open.

“Agnes,” said my grandmother. It came out quietly, a sigh, and
suddenly she seemed to shrink. Her eyes, often hard, had something
new in them, which alarmed me even more than the shrinking had.
It was fear, I suddenly realized. My grandmother was afraid.

She took the corner of my apron least marred by squirrel gut and
tried to yank it over my head, but it caught on my ear. By then she
had glimpsed my bloody coat. She let go of the apron and covered
her eyes with her hands.

I had never seen my grandmother cry. I had never imagined she
was capable; she was so steady, so grim. I was the opposite, erupting
into tears at the smallest provocation, slouching off to the barn or
to the woods behind the house to vent my rage and sadness. Grandmother
disapproved of these episodes, calling them “performances”
and warning me that if I did not put such childish things away I was
doomed to a hard and lonely life.

But here she was crying herself, right in front of me and Miss
Skerry. My mind went spiralling back what seemed a hundred years,
although it was really less than ten, to another day and another adult
weeping. My emotional nature, I had always thought, came from
him — my father. In fact, Grandmother herself said this when she
was angry, calling it my “Gallic blood.” I was the family misfit —
dark and teary, with a mind that must have seemed disturbingly
foreign in that small Presbyterian town.

“It’s not what you think,” I said. “I didn’t kill it.”

I was trying to reassure her, but I managed to do the exact
opposite. It was the word “kill.” I should not have used it, for my
grandmother was thinking of her son-in-law — my father — and
his poor dead sister.

I have never seen a picture of my father — we kept no photograph
after he left so I could not see it for myself — but everyone
in St. Andrews East said I was his spitting image. They were careful
about saying it, not wanting to upset Grandmother, but sometimes
it slipped out. Archie Osborne, the town doctor, said it almost
every time he saw me. And I was keenly aware that I looked nothing
like Laure, who was blue-eyed and fair, with the delicate bone
structure of the White family women. My skin was like a gypsy’s,
and my body stocky and squat. The ladies who came for tea at the
Priory always remarked how pretty Laure was. It was hard not to,
she looked so much like an angel with her flowing, corn-silk hair.
When they realized I was in the room, serving lumps of sugar, an
embarrassed silence followed. “Agnes is so intelligent,” they would
add, trying miserably to make amends.

My intelligence, it was generally assumed, also came from my
father — bookishness, an unfortunate trait for a girl, especially one
who is not nice to look at. Grandmother’s theory was that I spent
so much time reading I’d ruin my eyes. I did not believe her because
she herself had bad eyes and the only book she ever opened was the
Bible, and then only once a week, on Sunday.

Grandmother believed my father was a murderer. She never said
as much; in fact, she avoided all mention of him after he left. It was
as if he had died, just like my mother. Grandmother even went so
far as to change our name. Two years after my father disappeared,
and several months after Mother’s funeral, Laure and I officially
dropped Bourret and became Whites, and the accent was dropped
from Agnès so that I became Agnes. My grandmother became our
legal guardian.

The squirrel was just too much for her. I only realized it after the
fact or I would have been more careful, performing the dissection
in the woods, where neither she nor Laure would ever have looked.
It was like a sign that all my grandmother’s efforts to guide me,
to provide me with a decent Christian home and name had been
for naught. Nothing could change the fact that I was a squat, dark
person with a foreign brain and foreign ways. For what was a
thirteen-year-old girl doing out in the barn on one of the coldest
days of January slicing open a squirrel?

Bourret derives from the French word bourreau, which, strictly
speaking, means “executioner.” In Quebec, however, it has other
idiomatic uses. There is bourreau des coeurs, “lady-killer.” And
bourreau d’enfants, “batterer of children.” In the case of my father’s
family the name was prophetic. His youngest sister, Marie, was
found battered to death and drowned on the shore of the Ottawa
River, not far from the family’s home in Rigaud, about a day’s drive
west of Montreal. It turned out, however, that the girl had actually
been living in Montreal, in the attic of our home, for months
before her death, although no one besides my parents and me had
known this.

The violent circumstances of her death and the fact that she had
been secreted in our attic directly before it were considered sufficient
grounds to charge my father with murder.

Marie Bourret was a cripple and a deaf-mute, alone in the world
once her parents died. I have absolutely no recollection of her,
although I have since returned to my father’s former house in
Montreal and stood in the rooms in which she allegedly spent her
last days.

The prosecutor argued that she would have been a burden to my
father, who was her oldest sibling and the most successful of his
large family — a doctor teaching at the University of McGill with
a young wife and family and prospects shining brightly ahead of
him. The prosecutor convinced the public of this motive but had
insufficient evidence to prove it. My father was acquitted by the
jury but not by general opinion in the City of Montreal.

He was allowed to keep his practice, an empty gift, for after the
trial no patient would come to him. Then McGill gave him notice.
The murder was the biggest scandal the city had seen for years
and all kinds of people who had not met my father spent hours
speculating about his guilt in the affair. We had to take refuge in
St. Andrews East with Grandmother White. Throughout that winter
and spring rumours flew. Letters were printed in the newspapers. An
anonymous poem appeared in the Montreal Gazette.

Here is the city of Mount Royal
Built on a river of strife.
Here is where Dr. Bourret once stood
Pledging to save human life.
Was the oath all noise like the rapids,
As empty and light as the foam?
And what says the poor murdered inmate
In the still upper room of his home?

This was the story of my father, Honoré Bourret. In a way it is
also mine. Although my grandmother clearly tried to do her best by
me, it was in her mind the minute she saw the squirrel.

Miss Skerry, who had been at the Priory for only three days,
looked on with narrowed eyes. The muscles of her face were pulled
down in what appeared to be a permanent scowl, which was why I
had dreamed up a nickname for her the day she arrived. The Scary
. So far she had managed only one lesson with me and Laure,
which had been an utter bore. We had had to read aloud a random
passage from the Bible and scribble out an explication. It was no
different from lessons with Grandmother, who believed that the
Gospels were the only reading material to reliably produce young
women of virtue.

Grandmother removed her glasses and wiped her eyes. “I must
get back to Laure,” she said, straightening her shoulders and looking
a bit more like her usual self.

“What an introduction to our home, Miss Skerry,” she said to
the governess. “One girl faints away at the sight of blood and the
other delights in skinning squirrels.”

“I wasn’t skinning it!” I protested. No one looked my way.

The governess put a hand on Grandmother’s arm. “Please don’t
worry, Mrs. White. Just tell me how to help.”

Grandmother nodded, relieved I think that the governess was
practical. “If you can bear it I would like you to stay here, Miss
Skerry, and oversee. That would be the greatest service to us all
while I tend to Laure.”

Grandmother then turned to me. “And you, young lady, will clean
all of this up, every last bit.” Indignation had brought blood back into
her cheeks. For once I was almost glad she was angry. “Miss Skerry
will stay here, although I do not expect her to help you. This is your
doing, Agnes White, and you must put things right. The carcass is to
be buried. And I want every trace of squirrel blood removed. The
barn,” she said, looking around for the first time at my specimens,
“is to be emptied of all these dead things.” She paused, taking in my
father’s Beck microscope squatting beside me in the straw. “And that
is stolen property. Am I correct that it’s the property of your father?”
She stared at me hard, her jaw trembling slightly. “I cannot imagine
how you ever stole it away and kept it hidden this long.”

As soon as my grandmother had left, taking three empty jam jars
with her, Miss Skerry removed her spectacles, exposing squinty mole
eyes. “Well,” she said. “This is a surprise.”

She walked over to the microscope and squatted. “You said this
was your father’s?”

I did not answer. It was my grandmother who had said it, and
even if the words were true I didn’t feel I owed anyone, least of all
the governess, an explanation.

“I will take your silence as an affirmation,” she said.

“I didn’t steal it,” I finally muttered. “That instrument is my

This earned me a look. “He was a doctor?”

I nodded.

The governess did not seem angry so I continued, enjoying the
furtive pleasure of talking about my father. “Yes, but not a country
doctor like the ones out here. My father worked at McGill. His
specialty was morbid anatomy.” I looked at her, hoping she would
be impressed.

“Morbid anatomy,” she said. “How gloomy sounding.”

“Morbid means disease,” I said, for I had looked it up in the
dictionary right after I’d learned the term and my father’s association
with it. “It comes from the Latin, morbidus.” I was showing
off now, parading my cleverness and subtly putting the governess
in her place.

To her credit she did not react. “So he studied diseased anatomy?”

“That’s right.”

“Under the microscope,” she said, bending to examine my father’s
sleek Beck model. “May I?” she asked.

I nodded. I had not shown it to anyone. A mixture of pride and
protectiveness surged inside me. “Do you wish to see how it
works?” I picked it up by its three-pronged base and put it on the
work table. “It is not all that difficult to manoeuvre once you get
the hang of it.”

“You know how to work it?”

“Of course.” I showed her how to fit her eye to the eyepiece and
explained about the slides and the focus knob.

“Your father taught you this?”

“Not really. He did not sit me down to give me a lesson as I have
done for you. I was four when he left.”

Miss Skerry became interested. “You could not have taught
yourself these skills at the age of four, Agnes. It is not possible. This
is a highly complex instrument. You could not have figured out
how to use it and the slides and how to collect all these things in
bottles on your own?”

I had not thought about this before. I was eleven when I set up
the dissection room in my grandmother’s barn, and at that point
I had been a complete novice. I do not believe I had touched a
microscope before, but somehow I had known what to do. What I
had not known I figured out by trial and error.

“No one taught me,” I said firmly. “I guess I watched when I was
young. My father had a room set aside for dissections in our home.”

I could picture it as clearly as my father’s face, although this last
part I did not tell her. “It was full of jars on shelves. Not pickling
jars like the ones I use,” I added quickly. “Real laboratory jars with
thicker glass. Inside were his specimens — diseased hearts and lungs
and such like. My father excised them. That was his job. There was
also a skeleton, a real one, not much bigger than I was at four. It
was pinned with metal staples and propped up on a pole. I used to
play with it — until its arm broke.”

“You learned simply by watching him?”

I nodded. “Not just him. There were others too, his students
from McGill.” I had not thought of this in years. There had been
one young man who came quite often, I remembered. He used to
eat dinner with us. I could not quite picture him, but I remembered
that he was kind and brought me candies.

“And these students would dissect things under your father’s

“Dissect and draw and mount things. It’s what morbid anatomists

“It obviously made quite an impression on you.”

I couldn’t make out Miss Skerry’s expression, but I nodded anyway.
It was true that I had been impressed, but it was also true that
excised tissue had been as natural to me as gabardine would be to
a tailor’s child, or leather to a cobbler’s. It was only after we moved
to St. Andrews East that it began to seem otherwise.

From the Hardcover edition.


"Told with precision, grace, and passion, The Heart Specialist is a beautiful, moving, utterly captivating novel about a woman who becomes one of Montreal's first female doctors. The writing is striking, the emotion immediate, the medical detail fascinating and the story compelling from the first page to the last. Claire Holden Rothman deserves a wide audience for this astounding literary achievement."
Lawrence Hill, author of Someone Knows My Name

"I can pay a book no higher compliment than to say I didn't want it to end. With The Heart Specialist, I rationed my reading, permitting myself only a few chapters at a sitting so as to savour the writing and the story."
Montreal Gazette

"[A]bly researched and written, with never an ungraceful sentence."
Toronto Globe and Mail

“Rothman has provided insight and perhaps gratitude in readers for those who paved the way.”
Cleveland Plain-Dealer

“Quietly captivating, the tone of The Heart Specialist is reminiscent of English classics like Jane Eyre ... a tale of persistence, of dreams realized and dashed—it delivers on soft cat feet, and leaves one feeling satisfied and contemplative.”

“Brilliant first novel ... Rothman’s heartbreaking portrait of this trailblazer will long linger with the reader.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"Based on the life of one of Canada's pioneering female physicians, Rothman's novel paints an arresting portrait of an indomitable yet vulnerable young woman."

“An epic that effortlessly navigates both complex medical concepts and the most basic human emotions…The Heart Specialist is a feminist-toned historical narrative that’s refreshingly unsentimental.”
BUST Magazine

“Rothman clearly admires this early feminist pioneer, who overcomes tremendous male prejudice to establish a distinguished career in her own right.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Writing with empathy and conviction, Rothman takes us through Agnes's pioneering journey.... Reading this book left me with immense respect for the brave women who were the first to break out of their strictures.”
—Reading the Past

From the Hardcover edition.

  • The Heart Specialist by Claire Holden Rothman
  • June 05, 2012
  • Fiction - Historical
  • Soho Press
  • $14.00
  • 9781616950774

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