THE LAST GREAT LOVE by Marilyn Harris


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Harris (The Portent) continues to show versatility as she moves away from the period Eden series--now with a study of a seriously ill woman and the insidious obliteration of her independence in the antiseptic ""alien land"" of a modern hospital. Catherine Wakelin, a 40-ish English professor accompanied by urgent husband Jeff, enters the emergency room of the hospital complaining of chest pains. She expects to be given medicine and sent home. But Catherine needs coronary care. . . and is about to be sucked under to the chilly depths of a strange new authority. Led by sadistic elderly nurse ""Auntie Em,"" a corps of nurses (Catherine at one point sees them as ""cut-outs"") begin the process of de-humanization. Clothing and belongings are removed, questions are ignored (where is Jeff?); there are tubes, electrodes, fierce indignities. And Catherine is indeed very ill from angina: her seizures become worse and worse; there is an occlusion and she is, for instants, dead--a seductive state which lures her. Frightened, angry, frustrated, Catherine weeps often--yet she will resist the prospect of a risky by-pass operation. And so the pressure begins. Her gorgeously-suited doctor is outraged by her refusal; the sophisticated surgeon, pushing his wares, is deceptively graceful in defeat; Catherine's family--who now seem oddly alien--are frightened. Two visitors, however, seem to understand the reactions of an assaulted ego: a lesbian technician who offers a sachet pillow; and chaplain David, an ex-doctor who offers irritating spiritual ""comfort"" but who encourages Catherine to stand her ground. And it is David's oddly persistent presence (he finally reveals his medical-past secret) and then, devastatingly, his betrayal which weaken Catherine: masks of mild rebellion are dropped and, now filled with love for all (even Auntie Em), Catherine goes off for surgery while only Jeff senses something wrong in her capitulation. On its most superficial level this is an angry commentary on the bypass operation itself (Catherine will die of ""complications""). And the novel suffers somewhat from being tied to these specifics--with fuzziness about Catherine's motives, her chance of survival without the operation, etc. But, even with a certain unsatisfying ambiguity at the close, this is a riveting patient's-eye view of the best and worst of modern cardiac hospital care--and it raises a host of questions not only about patients' rights but about the psychic pressures exercised by engulfing institutions.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Putnam