REVIEW: The Physician’s Daughter by Martha Conway
A compelling novel of female perseverance and the role of women in society set in the aftermath of the American Civil War. For readers of Tracy Chevalier.
In a world made for men, can one woman break free from tradition and walk a new path?
It is 1865, the American Civil War has just ended, and 18-year old Vita Tenney is determined to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a country doctor like her father. But when her father tells her she must get married instead, Vita explores every means of escape – and finds one in the person of war veteran Jacob Culhane. Damaged by what he’s seen in battle and with all his family gone, Jacob is seeking investors for a fledgling business. Then he meets Vita – and together they hatch a plan that should satisfy both their desires.
Months later, Vita seemingly has everything she ever wanted. But alone in a big city and haunted by the mistakes of her past, she wonders if the life she always thought she wanted was too good to be true. When love starts to compete with ambition, what will come out on top?
Dear Ms. Conway,
After loving “The Underground River/aka The Floating Theater some years ago, I was excited when I got approved to read this book. Then I somehow got the wrong date in my mind for when it was to be released in the US and completely missed the boat. Then I realized that the book is 480 pages long. But I flew through it as “The Physician’s Daughter” seemed to read itself and I’m delighted to have read about Vita and Jacob.
It’s now late 1865 and the US is still, in ways, reeling from the last five years of civil war. Vita Tenney and her family were sure that her older and beloved brother Fred was going to make it only to have him die of an infection when the Army surgeon decided not to amputate. The family is stunned and hurting. Fred was the joker and the one whom his father had determined would follow in his footsteps to become another doctor. Fred cheerfully acknowledged to Vita that she was better for this, their mother (also an intelligent woman but one whose dreams had been thwarted) knows her eldest daughter is smart but Vita’s father refuses to even consider Vita attending medical school. Vita has argued and tried to persuade him to no avail.
Then Jacob Culhane returns to town. After running away from his drunken father, learning a trade and starting a business in Ohio, Jacob joined the Union forces only to discover that, as General Sherman said, “War is hell.” He survived the battles and he survived, against the odds, Andersonville. Now he wants to sell the family farm and try to develop the idea that a fellow prisoner, who saved Jacob’s life, dreamed of doing. When he arrives back in Massachusetts, a different fate awaits. As a single man – and one without outward injuries – he’s bombarded with women – single and widows. With one, though, he comes to an agreement; they’ll split her father’s money to help start his business in exchange for allowing her to attend medical school. But of course things aren’t going to be as easy as that.
This is more historical fiction but it does have a romance in it. The historical aspects are wonderful evoking the setting and the age. Vita is strong willed and determined but also flawed with self doubt. Jacob is a survivor who tries to hide the tremors and whose dreams take him back to the horrible POW camp. Their marriage of convenience occurs fairly quickly in their relationship and way before they ever had a chance to truly get to know each other. Unfortunately for them both, Vita has become so used to hearing “no” and fighting against it that she jumps the gun without talking to Jacob.
Now the two are faced with deciding what to do. Vita hasn’t given up her dream and perseveres with the help of the only man who would probably be willing to assist her gain the experience that a person hoping to attend medical school in that age would need. But despite his amazing bedside manner and teaching abilities, he’s also haunted by what happened in the war. And when Vita discovers something, her pain over the loss of her brother strikes again. Jacob is stunned at the turn of events and now wondering what he wants to do. He and Vita might not have courted long and had a short engagement, but he still thought they might have something they could live with and build on.
What I liked first is that both Vita and Jacob have to really think about what they want from life. It’s thrown them some hard curveballs and kicked the stuffing out of them more than once. Are their dreams what they still want and even if so, do they have the strength to keep going after those dreams? They’re backed by some wonderful secondary characters – some fully fledged and others given nutshell descriptions that tell us all we need to know about them. What else I liked is that Vita doesn’t end up storming the doors of a medical school to get her way. When her chance to interview arrives, she uses her brains, some hutzpah, and skills learned from those who taught her to try to make her case.
The ending is hopeful rather than settled. This is 1866 and for people willing to think big there are opportunities. For women who decide not to take a “no” as the final answer, there are chances. For a couple who started out with a business arrangement, there might just be more from a marriage than they ever imagined … or hoped for. B+