A young woman breaks into a male-dominated field and re-evaluates her faith during a grueling hospital internship.
Medical student Isabella “Izzie” Isaksen follows her father into surgery through an internship at Ohio Memorial General Hospital. A year of constant fatigue and gruesome operations lies ahead. A routine gastric bypass goes awry, a transplanted heart refuses to beat, and an 80-year-old man appears with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Meanwhile, this debut novel gives an account of Izzie’s loss of faith—“I grew weary of God’s plan and its mysterious unfairness”—as she sees good people diagnosed with horrific illnesses, such as Father Guinell’s pancreatic cancer. Surgeons also engage in sensitive discussions about quality of life versus last-ditch treatment. (At one point, a doctor observes: “It would absolutely be tragic to remove a tumor and leave a crippled, bed-ridden, tube dependent person in your wake.”) At the same time, Stuart piles on the laughs at this hospital resembling Sacred Heart from TV’s Scrubs. Interns yell out answers as if they were on a game show, there are Seinfeld and I Love Lucy references, and colleagues’ banter is laced with nicknames and expletives. One raunchy scene finds fellow intern “The Donald” Trenbauer incapacitated and priapic in a supply cupboard; Izzie has to treat him in secret. Stuart narrates the medical procedures in impressive but not overwhelming anatomical detail. Metaphors are pleasantly inventive, like “the Beaujolais flowed in buckets from the abdominal cask” and “Laparoscopic surgery is a lot like making a ship in a bottle.” But an endotracheal tube diagram and a minilesson about O negative blood seem less fitting. Stuart doesn’t follow through on a potential romance Izzie strikes up with her neighbor, and the tale delivers a fairly sudden ending. Still, it’s gratifying to see this intrepid woman infiltrate a field “polluted by machismo,” even if the title’s symbolism about making sacrifices—“we all have to pay the boatman”; an obol was the Greek coin traditionally used—to succeed is somewhat belabored. With obvious punctuation errors and typos (“Chekov” and “a clear conscious”) cleaned up and a title and cover more appropriate to the tone, this jaunty novel would pack a wry punch.
The plucky heroine and made-for-TV tragicomic scenes and dialogue make this a promising debut.