The Heart Specialist
By Claire Holden Rothman
(Soho Press, Hardcover, 9781569479452, 325pp.)
Publication Date: June 7, 2011
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Set in Quebec at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, The Heart Specialist is the epic story of Agnes White, a lonely orphaned girl fascinated by the "wrong" things—microscopes, dissections, and anatomy instead of more ladylike interests—who rises to the status of one of the world's most celebrated pioneering women doctors. Not only does she break through patriarchal academic barriers; she masters the science of the human heart, becoming a scholar of international fame, all in a place and time inimical to intelligent women.
When Agnes is small, her father, a French-Canadian doctor living in Montreal, is charged with the murder of his handicapped sister. Although he is eventually acquitted, his reputation is ruined, and he flees, abandoning Agnes and her pregnant mother. Less than a year later, her mother dies of consumption, leaving Agnes and her baby sister Laure on their own. Agnes's sparse memories of her father have an abiding impact on her, and she is determined to find him, as well as to follow in his footsteps as a doctor, even though medical schools in Canada are closed to women at the time. She eventually gets her degree and finds a niche for herself as the curator of the McGill University pathology museum. But even as her professional star rises, her life is solitary and her happiness remains incomplete because of her missing father. One of the only clues in her quest to find him is a strange, misshapen heart that teaches her an invaluable lesson about love. Agnes ultimately must recognize that though she's a world-reknowned expert on the human heart, she still doesn't understand the her own.
Inspired by the career of Maude Abbott, one of Canada's first female physicians, The Heart Specialist is a novel about the mysterious, painful journey into selfhood.
Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal writer and translator. After early training as a lawyer, she taught college literature and creative writing at McGill University. Rothman's short fiction has appeared in numerous literary periodicals. She has published two story collections, Salad Days and Black Tulips. Longlisted for Canada's prestigious Scotia Bank-Giller Prize, The Heart Specialist is a Canadian bestseller and will soon be released in Italy, Germany, the UK, and French Canada.
"Told with precision, grace, and passion, The Heart Specialist is a beautiful, moving, utterly captivating novel about a woman who becomes one of Montreal's first female doctors. The writing is striking, the emotion immediate, the medical detail fascinating and the story compelling from the first page to the last. Claire Holden Rothman deserves a wide audience for this astounding literary achievement."
—Lawrence Hill, author of Someone Knows My Name
"I can pay a book no higher compliment than to say I didn't want it to end. With The Heart Specialist, I rationed my reading, permitting myself only a few chapters at a sitting so as to savour the writing and the story."
"[A]bly researched and written, with never an ungraceful sentence."
—Toronto Globe and Mail
“Rothman has provided insight and perhaps gratitude in readers for those who paved the way.”
“Quietly captivating, the tone of The Heart Specialist is reminiscent of English classics like Jane Eyre ... a tale of persistence, of dreams realized and dashed—it delivers on soft cat feet, and leaves one feeling satisfied and contemplative.”
“Brilliant first novel ... Rothman’s heartbreaking portrait of this trailblazer will long linger with the reader.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"Based on the life of one of Canada's pioneering female physicians, Rothman's novel paints an arresting portrait of an indomitable yet vulnerable young woman."
“An epic that effortlessly navigates both complex medical concepts and the most basic human emotions…The Heart Specialist is a feminist-toned historical narrative that’s refreshingly unsentimental.”
“Rothman clearly admires this early feminist pioneer, who overcomes tremendous male prejudice to establish a distinguished career in her own right.”
“Writing with empathy and conviction, Rothman takes us through Agnes's pioneering journey.... Reading this book left me with immense respect for the brave women who were the first to break out of their strictures.”
—Reading the Past
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