Dr. EllenJuly 11, 2011
Structurally, Dr. Ellen is centered around three women: there’s Ellen Roderick, who lost a husband and a child in quick succession, used her period of mourning to study to become a doctor, and then moved into a mountain cabin and set up as a physician for the locals. Then there’s her younger sister, Ruth Chantry, who lives with Ellen, but doesn’t share her ideals or sense of purpose. Ruth is young and vibrant and wants to be around people all the time, and she’s increasingly resentful about the way Ellen keeps her in isolation. The third woman is Ruth’s friend Christine O’Hara, shallow, easygoing, and flirtatious, who provides Ruth with a brief respite from her exile when she invites her for a visit.
It’s on that visit that Ruth and Philip Amsden meet. Philip is in his thirties, and architect, and not so much stuck-up as aloof. Also, he’s the person the book is about, really. He’s captivated by Ruth’s enthusiasm, and her naive enjoyment of everything, and lets himself be drawn into the various activities Christine has scheduled for Ruth’s amusement.
This leads, eventually, to Amsden, Christine, and Will Wallace — chubby, good-natured, has the reputation of having a good sense of humor — joining Ruth for a visit once she returns home. There Amsden finds Ellen Roderick to be less tyrannical than he expected, and a lot more impressive, especially for the way she weathers the several scandals in which they become embroiled. There were a fair umber of preachy bits that I was never entirely sold on, but the problems Ellen is faced with seemed real and serious, and the people who caused them were vivid, well-realized characters.
There’s a lot to like here. The stakes always seem high, even when they’re not. Ruth is far more interesting than I would have ever expected. Rory Dorn the probable lesbian is kind of awesome. But there were also things that just left me confused. And by “things,” I mostly mean the ending. I have very little idea of what happened. On multiple levels. And then, the tone of the book was sort of puzzling as well. Some of it felt so heavy, while other parts were uncomfortably light. This isn’t comic relief at work, unless Tompkins was trying for comic relief and hadn’t quite got the hang of it.
So, not a perfect book–not by a long shot. But it was really interesting, and I was definitely hooked for the couple of hours it took me to read it. In a way, I think Dr. Ellen‘s unevenness worked in it’s favor. I never really felt like I had a handle on what was going on, or what was about to, and so it felt suspenseful and exciting. And interesting, in plot, character, and content, which is hard to pull off. This is one that I found in a bookstore, rather than one I read online, and, while I’m still not totally sure how I feel about it, I think I’m glad I own it.