A married, 47-year-old doctor who finds his life dreary decides to seek fulfillment.
Vip Van Buren wouldn’t seem to have it so bad: He chairs a New York hospital’s neurology department, his wife, Eve, makes big bucks, and they live in a “well-groomed” doorman building with their two teenagers. But his department is “in shambles,” running too many drug studies and losing too many patients. At the Met, he meets soprano Svetlana Borisenko: “It was impossible to stop looking at her. She was young, tall, and blonde,” with a “lovely, velvety, full voice.” Meeting his best friend’s new, young girlfriend is a watershed moment, and Vip notes, “Eve, of course, was not bad at all, but she was older than twenty-five.” He concludes that he has “only two choices…enjoy the fleshly pleasures of life or produce something meaningful.” Or both: Vip hares off to Europe, leaving a very angry family behind, and pursues Svetlana while starting on his novel, which he plans to imbue with “some kind of a moral message—a story of spiritual adventure.” By the book’s end, order is restored and everyone is happy—now that Eve is “making more of an effort to get along and do things together.” Gonen’s writing flows competently, including scene-setting, dialogue and point of view (some sections are in Svetlana’s voice); he uses Vip’s medical background to good effect, and his discussions of opera are well-informed. Much of the book is such a blatant fantasy, however, that it’s hard to take seriously. By a remarkable coincidence, Svetlana just happens to move into Vip’s building. She has a neurological disorder that Vip is uniquely placed to treat. On his return to work, Vip is told “[W]e realized that you were right all along.” Excerpts from Vip’s novel add little, and it’s rather grating to be given life lessons by a character who abandons his family, even temporarily, to chase a younger woman.
Obvious wish fulfillment undermines this novel of middle-age frustration.