In this novel set in 1973, a cancer doctor, who’s struggling with feelings of futility, reluctantly agrees to treat an 11-year-old girl.
Oncologist Willie Mays “Bernie” Bernstein doesn’t take children as patients. He treats adult cancers with the tools and knowledge that are available, and it tests the limits of his hope and resilience. His temper flares, stress tightens his chest, and he drinks too much. “Most patients die. When they live, who knows why?” he muses. “Shit. It’s all a waste of time.” Still, when head nurse Jessica Coles—who took Bernie under her wing when he was just starting out—asks him to see her young granddaughter Anna Bing, who’s suffering from Hodgkin’s disease, he can’t say no. Sorting out the girl’s treatment will require him to think differently about cancer and break some rules. In this, he’s supported by his open, loving family. As he waits to see the effects of his risky, experimental regimen, he comes to see the importance of maintaining a realistic yet positive outlook. In his debut novel, Derechin—a retired physician whose specialties were oncology and hematology—nicely captures the frustrations of a doctor who’s keenly aware of his limitations. Bernie is a well-balanced character, neither Dr. Schweitzer nor Dr. House. His warm, chaotic little household zoo of family, pets, and friends mirrors his own nature; he’s a man who’s willing to ski through a snowstorm to get to his patients. Some of the book’s insights about cancer treatment that were new in the 1970s are well-accepted today, such as prioritizing pain relief over the risk of addiction. Others are still controversial, for example the idea that patients’ attitudes make all the difference—a view reflected today in many positive-thinking approaches for cancer sufferers: “He’s just not a quitter,” says the wife of a prostate-cancer patient; “I feel people pick the time to die,” agrees Bernie. Readers who’ve seen determined people die of cancer, though, may strongly disagree.
A compassionate portrait of a doctor’s quest to make a difference.