Tag Archives: Carol Cassella

Friend of the family

“I’m a lucky man, I know that…  My son, my wife, my job, my mother, my brother.   I have done enough damage to lose them all…”

First the positives.   A Friend of the Family, a novel by Lauren Grodstein, tells quite an intriguing story.   This is a tale about a doctor who, through a minor omission on his part, lets a patient of his die from an undiagnosed condition.   The pulling of this thread causes the fabric of his previously secure and comfortable life to come apart; the set up has parallels to Carol Cassella’s fine novel Oxygen.   In this case, the physician is a male in his early fifties and Grodstein does a quite commendable job of getting us to believe the man’s voice (sometimes not the case with female authors).

The plot line would have been fine for a medical-legal drama…   Dr. Pete Dizinoff has made a mistake that threatens a reputation it has taken him a lifetime to build.   His best friend, a medical specialist, is not only aware of Dr. Dizinoff’s error, he in fact urged him to order a test that might have saved the life of his young woman patient.   Will his friend protect him or turn on him?  

Unfortunately, the author fails to be content with this straight forward story line, so subplots are added – the main one being a possible romantic relationship between Dr. Dizinoff’s 20-year-old son and the troubled 30-year-old daughter of his best friend – and things get confusing and hard to follow.   There’s also a debate about the value of life in the suburbs.   Dr. Dizinoff thinks, “Evening in the garden of good and suburban…  Suburbs, man.   I don’t care what anybody says.   It’s the only way to live.”   Yes, the main character is quite satisfied with living in the suburban community of Round Hill.   Contra, the young woman who may be involved with his son says, “Isn’t the whole point of (living in) Round Hill that you can be gone for ten years and not miss a thing?”   But these issues are not the biggest problem with the narrative.  

The story told here would likely have been a fascinating one if it had been told in simple chronological order.   Instead, like an overly clever Hollywood film, the story starts in the present, with abrupt (even neck whiplashing) movements to events that happened three, four, thirty and even forty or so years in the past.   Each time a new chapter or sub-chapter begins the reader is forced to ask, “So where are we now?”

I’m not at all sure what’s the supposed appeal of this style of quick-cut and retro-scene storytelling.   I just know and believe that the story got lost in the complexity of its telling.  

I considered adding a few comments about what Grodstein’s characters tell us about life, but this time I’ll refrain from doing so.   There are some gems and rewards for the reader, to be sure.   This reader just hopes that the  clearly talented Laura Grodstein keeps it simpler the next time around. A friend 4

A Friend of the Family will be released by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill on Tuesday, November 11, 2009.   

Thank you to the publisher for providing the review copy.  

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Oxygen

If you’re looking for something quite different, this is it.   Oxygen by Carol Cassella is an interesting medical-legal tale told from the perspective of a practicing anesthesiologist.   In this story, Dr. Marie Heaton is the anesthesiologist who tells the mother of a young girl going into surgery, “I’m going to keep her very safe for you.”   Then the child dies on the operating table mid-procedure.

The death begins the unraveling of the doctor’s life professionally and emotionally, as she faces a civil suit and perhaps even criminal sanctions.   Cassella (an English literature major at Duke before completing medical school) is excellent at creating tension to the point where lights seem to dim as you move further along in this living nightmare.

The reader relates fully with Dr. Heaton because she’s apparently made no major mistakes (she may have cut one minor corner) yet faces horrendous consequences because a child is dead.   Dr. Heaton also begins to see that the friends and colleagues who’ve pledged to stand beside her begin to drop away.   At the end, she may have only her Texas-based family members to rely upon; and faint hopes of a miraculous exoneration.

I will not say any more about the plot except to note that it is set in Seattle, a place Cassella brings to life whether or not you’ve visited Pike Place Market.   Ironically, Dr. Horton and her fellow doctors have moved to Seattle for its scenery, which they rarely see due to 14-hour workdays.

For a first-time novelist, Cassella’s style is smooth and easy:  “The freeway dumps us into a nest of prewar bungalows huddling below the glass and metal giants of downtown (Houston).   The houses are painted in the vivid Easter egg yellows and blues and lavenders my mother always associated with the Mexican barrios that percolate up through the soul of all Texas cities like boiling springs, their mariachis…  and Spanish seared into our cultural palate.”

I have just two reservations about the telling of this story.   The first is that life becomes such a harsh struggle so quickly for the main character that some may find it too depressing to hold their interest.   Second, the Seattle hospital that Dr. Heaton works at never seemed real…   Those who know hospitals may find that something seems to be missing.

Despite these two points, I’m glad I read this one-of-a-kind novel.   I’m a fan of stories where the ending has not been revealed fifty, seventy-five or one hundred pages before it arrives…   This one also comes with a bit of an epilogue which is a pleasant surprise.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellanooxygen 3

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Coming Up Next…

Oxygen 5A review of Oxyen: A Novel by Carol Cassella.

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