This novel could just as easily been titled The Education of Alice. A first-year medical student at Montrose Psychiatric Hospital, Dr. Alice Matthews, who still has to occasionally remind herself that she is a doctor, learns much from her first patient, Mrs. Madeline Bemis. Like what it means to be truly committed to another person, and what is unhealthy in her own relationships, especially with Ethan, the would-be rock star.
Alice’s epiphany about Ethan comes one day when he has been particularly obtuse about her work, and she looks at him while she is talking to her mother on the phone:
“He was in a rumpled T-shirt that seemed to have come out of a laundry hamper, if he actually had such a thing; his black Converse sneakers were on the floor, his crumpled backpack beside them. All of it suddenly looked historic now, as if this would soon be an image that was all she had to remember him by.”
As the counseling progresses and Mrs. Bemis reveals dark secrets from her past, Alice discovers that the woman has some connection to a drowned man whose body was found floating in Massachusetts Bay. The story is told in alternating viewpoints, and the chapters from Maddie reveal those secrets in small increments.
Alice’s chapters show her maturing professionally as well as emotionally as she works to bring her patient to health. It is a real delight the first time she uses her title and is comfortable doing so. It is also satisfying to see her growing confidence enable her to fight for what is best for Mrs. Bemis and take an active role in unraveling the mystery.
John Sedgwick is the author of The Dark House, a novel that like this one explores social relationships while a mystery is solved. Much of the tragedy in Mrs. Bemis’s life is connected to the attitudes and values prevalent in the 1940s, especially as related to the upper class, and the author reveals that with impeccable detail. He is also able to portray the thoughts and feelings of women as if he were inside their heads and hearts.
The story lags just a bit in the beginning, but that is a minor fault easily overlooked. Especially when the reader is treated to such marvelous narrative as:
As she made her way down the asphalt path, Alice wished she could have asked Mrs. Bemis to join her. Not the Madeline Bemis who was languishing in her bed, too frail seeming today to go out, but the one who was like that high elm leaning over Danzinger, its wet bark glistening. Someone tough and graceful, ready to take on Prince Charles over cocktails. The former Mrs. Bemis. Before sorrow had overcome her.