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Book Review: The Heart Specialist

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So, here’s something I’m kind of confused about.  When is it Historical Fiction, and when is it just Fiction That Is Set Sometime in the Past?  The Heart Specialist by Claire Holden Rothman is labeled Historical Fiction, but while the main character was inspired by a real person, every other detail is fictional.  So, I would call it simply fiction, not Historical Fiction.  But they didn’t ask me.

Anyway, The Heart Specialist is set in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  It focuses on a Canadian girl fascinated with science (and not on needlework and looking pretty and finding a husband) who eventually goes on to become a doctor, despite the fact that this was highly unusual and frowned upon in that culture and time.  Agnes White becomes especially skilled in recognizing heart defects.  The novel tells of her struggles, her relationships, and her accomplishments in the field of medicine.

It’s kind of interesting to read about the difficulties women had in entering college, especially in science, and the criticism they encountered in entering the workforce in such a specialty.  The novel begins in 1882 when Agnes, the narrator, is a young girl, and ends in 1919 when she is well into middle-age.  Agnes is influenced into studying medicine by her father who was a physician, but he abandoned the family when Agnes was four years old due to a scandal that ruined his career and threatened his family.  Agnes’s mother died a short time later, and Agnes and her younger sister are left in the care of their grandmother, who is appalled by Agnes’s makeshift autopsies (of squirrels and such) in the shed.  A governess encourages Agnes in her studies, and becomes her biggest supporter.

Along the way, Agnes encounters many others who either support her or criticize her, and she begins to learn who she can count on and trust — but she has several large blind spots that hamper her relationships.

This book provides insight into the struggles of a late 19th-century female doctor as well as an intriguing character study of a woman who, with all her scientific knowledge, has much to learn about people and relationships.  However, about two-thirds of the way into the novel, I felt it began to drag and I just wanted it to come to a conclusion.  Otherwise well-written, this story which spanned forty years seemed too long.

Score: 7/10


About Karen Koch

I like the old-fashioned lifestyle. All this new-fangled stuff baffles me sometimes. I cherish living out in the country, raising chickens and rabbits, planting fruit trees, and enjoying a slow life filled with beautiful words and ideas. I don't always achieve a slow life. I teach middle school English and manage a little burgeoning farm with my husband, and somewhere in the midst of that, I try to find time for writing, running, knitting, reading, and playing the ukulele. And sometimes, I actually succeed.

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