Murder, fine art, wartime trauma and ideological battles over surgical procedure collide in Vanstrum’s smartly written historical fiction.
Opening in 1875, the novel centers on the creation of Thomas Eakins’ painting The Gross Clinic, which, although considered an American masterwork today, was highly controversial at the time because of its graphic nature. Vanstrum follows multiple plot threads in his exploration of the people, fictional and otherwise, involved in the tale. The key figures include Eakins, who struggles with bipolar tendencies and attempts at fame; Samuel D. Gross, the famous surgeon at the center of the artist’s painting, who disdains the then-current theorizing of Joseph Lister on the cause and prevention of sepsis; Abigail Doverlund, a newspaper owner and grieving mother; and George Callahan, a Civil War veteran and detective whose investigation into a number of missing prostitutes runs headlong into the other characters’ lives, resulting in the exposure of secrets, scandal and an impressive number of corpses. Despite the often-salacious material that weaves in copious amounts of sex and violence, Vanstrum avoids being exploitative in a character-rich narrative that paints heroes and villains alike with nuance and care. In keeping with the tenor of the times, Vanstrum also introduces issues of the day through background detail and character discussion, such as the book-long debate over the role of cleanliness in the surgical arena and the public’s increasing awareness of Darwin’s writings. More impressively, he integrates the intellectual content in a way that furthers the plot, which never sags. Transitions among the various threads are handled smoothly, and none of the characters are shortchanged in the process. Although some readers may object to the bit of artistic license Vanstrum employs in his depiction of historical figures—particularly Eakins—his evenhandedness and creativity keep even negative characters, such as the pimp Slam Perkins, sympathetic.
Strong characters and deft handling of multiple narrative elements make for a fascinating read.