While listening, Erika toyed with the fringe of the Spanish shawl he’d brought back for her. She wondered why he – a man – was allowed to go away and leave his child for weeks that grew into months at a time, whereas she was bound to the house, tethered to the Back Bay. Why must she be the one to stay, while he was free? – from The Doctor and the Diva, page 214 –
Erika von Kessler comes from a family of renowned Boston physicians. She has married a wealthy man, but longs to expand her talents as an opera singer to the stages of Italy. Erika’s husband Peter, however, longs for a child and will stop at nothing to be ensured of an heir. After years of infertility, the couple turns to Doctor Ravell, a young Harvard educated physician whose star is rising in the field of gynecology…specifically in helping couples to conceive. Beginning in 1903 and spanning nearly a decade, The Doctor and The Diva is about a woman who ultimately must choose between her career as an opera singer and her life as a wife and mother.
Adrienne McDonnell was inspired to write her first novel based on the true life of her son’s paternal great-great-grandmother who deserted her prominent Boston husband in order to further her operatic career in Italy. McDonnell has carefully researched the medical history of infertility treatment (I was amazed to learn that artificial insemination had been practiced as early as 1785 in Scotland). By the mid-nineteenth century, cutting edge doctors were beginning to recognize the failure to conceive could not always be blamed on the woman – a point which becomes crucial in the plot for this novel. McDonnell artfully weaves all these facts into a spellbinding story that takes the reader from Boston to the coconut plantations of the Caribbean to the splendor of Florence, Italy.
Although there is a hefty dose of romance mixed into this historical novel, the character of Erika represents the strong-minded, intelligent women whose desire to pursue their careers over motherhood placed them on the edge of societal acceptance. It was the exploration of women’s rights which captured my imagination in the novel above all else.
The Doctor and the Diva is an exquisitely crafted story about one woman’s quest to pursue her art, about the barriers which women in the 1900’s faced when deciding to follow their dreams, and about the conflicting emotions when a woman wants it all (spouse, children and career) at a time when societal expectations were quite rigid. This is also an excellent look at medical practice in the field of obstetrics and gynecology during the early part of the twentieth century. McDonnell poses some interesting moral dilemmas which Doctor Ravell faces…and the way in which he resolves them would make for great discussion in a book group.
I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful book. Readers who love historical fiction and are interested in women’s issues during the 1900’s will want to read this novel.
FTC Disclosure: This book was provided by the publisher for review on my blog.
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