In Goetz’s (Bending the Twig, 2002) novel, a doctor is torn between his ambitions for groundbreaking research and his commitment to providing medical care in a rural community.
Goetz’s narrative follows Martin Cromlech from childhood in the 1960s through medical school to a successful career. After his sister Jenny’s death—attributed to physician error—motivates him to go into family practice in his Nebraska hometown, Martin sets off for medical school, where his skill and intelligence conflict with his disdain for the traditional curriculum and his impatience with his professors. A short-lived romance with classmate Diana is his only extracurricular activity. The book then moves ahead to the late 1970s; Martin is a star researcher in Chicago, drawing attention for his work treating hypertension while still wondering if he should practice medicine back home. A conflict with the new head of Martin’s lab, whose data and results Martin does not trust, as well as the reappearance of married but separated Diana finally push Martin into making a decision about where he belongs. The book delivers a compelling portrait of its place and time, and readers with medical backgrounds will enjoy the attention given to first-year dissections and the conversations among researchers discussing details of their work. Despite his early arrogance and lack of direction, Martin never becomes a truly unlikable character, and his redemption is effected through his fight for scientific truth and the humility he learns as he renews his relationship with Diana. The bulk of the narrative is character-driven, the plot taking lead toward the end as the conflict between researchers drives the story. The prose can be unpolished, with awkward phrasing—“Steady Alex Koenig…had even managed a small philosophical grin when an angry patient with wide-spread cancer fouled him with her feces”—and interactions that fall flat, including a cringe-worthy depiction of Japanese scientists: “Herro, Dr. Cromrech.” At other times, the prose is simply florid: “In his dark bedroom, drifting in that blurred margin between wakefulness and sleep, Martin James Cromlech fancied he heard, measured and far away, the spirit of Henry David Thoreau rhythmically applauding.”
A quiet novel of medicine and personal growth.