A misogynistic gynecologist disrupts the seemingly anodyne routine of a Finnish female sanatorium, unleashing sinister forces, in Chapman’s debut, a strained reinvention of a Greek tragedy.
Suvanto, a hospital nestled in the wilds of Finland, is a house divided. The first floor serves mostly local Finnish women, and has, by the 1920s, become the ideal laboratory for Dr. Peter Weber’s new surgical procedures for everything from Caesareans to hysterectomies, which he champions as a cure-all. The upper floor houses wealthier women who present a gamut of nebulous symptoms. There’s nothing really wrong with these “up-patients” except boredom, the dull, insensitive men in their lives and the encroachments of old age. Chief brat among the “ups” is Julia, practitioner and teacher of an oxymoronic dance form called “nordic tango.” (Her husband and she were barfly ballroom instructors.) The dissipated, world-weary Julia has been bundled into a cab and sent to Suvanto, presumably by her husband, who never apologized for giving her syphilis. The new arrival exasperates her well-meaning American nurse Sunny. Julia’s biting sarcasm soon has her fellow up-patients in her thrall: Her only match is Pearl, the Queen Bee, pampered, bejeweled wife of Dr. William Weber, Peter’s brother, who winters at Suvanto in order to take a rest cure from her marriage. Julia has supplanted Pearl’s chief courtier of last year, Mrs. Minder, whom Julia now mercilessly baits. William, hoping to restore Pearl’s joie de vivre, takes her on a train trip, and Peter accelerates obstetrics activity on the first floor, while searching for hysterectomy candidates (Julia tops the list) on the second. Sunny dreads Peter’s inroads: owing to her largely unelucidated past, she has a particular horror of pregnancy and infants. Chapman’s attempt to shoehorn the material into the framework of The Bacchae, Euripides’ ancient tragedy about hoards of ravening females, skews what promised to be a quieter but more compelling drama.
An affecting though overreaching first novel.