The novel opens to Nina’s account of her brother’s sexual appetites and betrayals, and leads into her mother’s narrative. As new shadows and light are cast on Nina’s story, painful secrets of life in her father’s house—the doctor’s house—emerge. In the dramatic third movement, the brother gives us his perspective. Through subtle shifts, The Doctor’s House chronicles the fictions three people fabricate in order to survive their lives and showcases the keen observances of family and culture that have made Beattie one of our most admired voices.
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About the Author
Hometown:Maine and Key West, Florida
Date of Birth:September 8, 1947
Place of Birth:Washington, D.C.
Education:B.A., American University, 1969; M.A., University of Connecticut, 1970
Read an Excerpt
from The Doctor's House
Late at night the fairy tiptoed to the window and waited for the ghost. The ghost rode in on the wind and tapped on the glass and made it shake in the window frame. The rattling glass was the ghost's music and its signal she should come out and fly.
The fairy had done this many times before so she was not afraid. Sometimes the ghost squeezed himself through the window and stayed with her in her bed but other times he let her know that they were going flying. She pushed the window up just the tiniest bit so that even if someone knew she was gone they would never guess she had left through the window. Then she held her breath so she could shrink enough to escape.
The ghost helped her exit by poking a ghost finger through the crack. The fairy walked the finger ledge and settled into the hollow between the ghost's neck and shoulder which formed a cradle to nestle in. He liked it best when she curled up because often he was sad and when he was he did not like it if you looked right at him.
Everything became quiet as they flew. They went up very very high where all the noise faded. They couldn't hear mothers and fathers fighting or dogs barking or even a telephone ring and the silence was beautiful.
If people saw the fairy they would have seen her pass by so fast that they would mistake her for something else such as a leaf swept up by the breeze in autumn.
Some time ago, my brother Andrew began looking up girls from high school. At first I didn't think much about it, because I didn't realize it was going to be girls, plural; I thought it was just going to be Josie Bower. That was the girl hementioned: Josie, who had survived cancer, but missed much of fifth grade, and whom many of the boys considered a tomboy, and therefore one of their own, before she had the surgery that left her with a limp. I had some curiosity, myself, about how Josie was doing. When he called to tell me he'd found her in Connecticut, I was eager to hear about her. I didn't exactly get it back then; I thought it was nice that he wanted to find out how she was doing after twenty-five years.
But Josie, who taught history at a private school and who was the mother of twin girls, as well as twin kittens, proved to be only a jumping-off point to Alice Manzetti, who had been her best friend in high school. Alice had something of a reputation, though I have no idea whether it was deserved or not. In fact, no girl's reputation was "deserved," because the boys were admired for being aggressive and the girls were blamed if they didn't resist capture. In retrospect, I think that because Alice was dark-haired and a little exotic, she would have had her reputation no matter what she had or hadn't done. Our father called her "a looker." Mrs. Manzetti was her daughter's opposite: shy, self-deprecating, with no fashion sense whatever. Mother and daughter neutralized each other. Mrs. M as she was known came to every sports event because Alice was a cheerleader. Some of the meaner boys called Mrs. M "the Witch," but I found her dark, curly hair flecked with gray attractive, and I thought it was noble that in spite of her husband's consistent absence, she came to everything, shy as she was. I was also shy, but I tried to pretend otherwise. I chewed gum (better than cigarettes as a way to avoid talking) and grew long hair to hide behind. I hung out with the vaguely artsy crowd that disdained makeup. To this day, I don't know how to apply it. All our defenses seem so transparent years later it left me wondering whether Josie might actually have wanted sympathy, though she insisted her surgery never be spoken of, and whether Alice might not have been so outgoing, but just the flip side of her mother.
I'll never know, because my only information was what my brother reported. Then and now I've admired his ability to connect with people, but my life is the opposite of Andrew's. Since my husband's death he died in his thirties, not long after finishing medical school, in a car crash that was not his fault I've lived in the carriage house in Cambridge he and I rented, which I managed to buy with the insurance money. I work as a freelance copy editor, editing manuscripts that sometimes come to me so incomplete that at the end of a paragraph by one particularly lame writer I found, in parentheses, "You fill in." You fill in: that became my mantra, whenever I felt put upon. Although I have friends, I don't feel the need to see them constantly: a phone call, or even a postcard (ours has been the generation of the ridiculous postcard), suffices. I see my brother often, because he lives nearby. Andrew and I are close; there was never any estrangement, even during the time he was married and living on the West Coast. I don't like planes, and his marriage was so turbulent that time after time he and his wife would cancel visits east because they'd stopped speaking to each other. Even if I had liked flying, it was not exactly pleasant to realize I'd probably be subjecting myself to a tense few days if I went for a visit. Andrew is embarrassed about those years, though he's hardly alone in having made a mistake in marriage.
After their breakup, he plunged into a hectic social life with women before he started looking up girls from high school. He and I would be having coffee, and he would mention that a woman I'd never heard of was so threatened by some female colleague he knew from work that she'd suddenly become clingy (Sue McCamber), or he'd tell me that in the middle of the night he'd realized that the woman he'd been dating had begun infantilizing him (Dana or was it Dina?). The discussions he and I had about the women reminded me of Jeopardy!: some bizarre action described, with some girl's name the inevitable solution. Who is Sue McCamber?
Andrew introduced me to Sue McCamber after she had figured in his life for several months. Sue was the divorced mother of a little boy. She was younger than my brother, and slightly New Age flakey (she saw significance in her son's middle name being the same as my brother's). Still, I came to like her. She was pretty is pretty, though I don't see her anymore, since he doesn't in an unself-conscious way, and charmingly bumbling in her girlishness. One time she walked out of her clog and hobbled for half a block before
she realized what was wrong and started laughing. She didn't mind asking what a word meant if she didn't know, and she was always the first to jump up to help, even if all you were doing was making tea. No one before me had ever made tea for her. All her life, all she'd seen was tea bags. You'd think that with fancy coffee places opening everywhere she would at least have seen freshly brewed tea, but she acted as if she were at a seance, looking into my eyes for a sign when I placed the teapot on the table. The next time she came she brought scones. I had hand-cut marmalade, and even Andrew who prefers a beer, or strong coffee really enjoyed the tea party. Several times I took care of her son while she and Andrew went to dinner and a movie. The people in the big house that hides my house from the street have a small boy also. I was quite experienced in looking after children and, frankly, Vincent was so well-behaved and bright that his visits were a pleasure. I don't know why Sue and Andrew broke up; his account to me was garbled and seemed to have something to do with living vicariously. He seemed to assume that he and I were implicated, together as if my baby-sitting and his long relationship with her were one and the same, and I must not settle for being a nursemaid instead of a mother, just as he could not settle for being a husband, instead of a lover. Why a person couldn't be both I couldn't imagine, but it was none of my business. There was the further complication that he had been seeing another woman when he'd dated Sue: Dana-Dina, whom I never met.
The woman I did know, and liked very much, was Serena Wythe. He went so far as to buy her an engagement ring, though that was the beginning of the end. She came to my house with him in a lull between snowstorms, and helped shovel my walk. Though he tried to make light of their good deed, saying he couldn't stand another minute of being cooped up inside and that they'd made the long trek over so he could introduce me to the woman he'd fallen in love with, I saw in retrospect that he had come, as he sometimes did, because I was a touchstone, and when things got too crazy in his life, he had a tendency to want to retreat to surer, safer territory. That was what I always represented. He didn't usually make such retreats alone, interestingly enough, but rather to bring along the person who had upset him; I once explained this to a friend by saying that it made me feel like those people who demagnetize watches when on the arm, the watch simply stops. Once my brother clasped my wrist a habitual gesture, when he was upset it was as if he assumed that magically the connection would deactivate his anxiety. In any case, this was some time before he began looking up high school girls. That day he was there to shovel snow and to announce his great love for Serena. Also, unbeknownst to her but obvious to me: he was there to ask me, in effect, to make it all except the snow go away.
She reminded me of someone. She was unusually pretty, so you'd think that I'd have known at once why she looked familiar but it took a while before I brought back the face of the nurse who told me in the hallway of intensive care that my husband had died. I had never seen that particular nurse before and only saw her briefly then, yet I found that years later her face had imprinted itself in my mind. At the time, I had been shocked as had the nurse that the doctor who was supposed to have told me had not. Considering the extent of Mac's injuries, some part of me had been waiting to hear it, but for a split second I had tried to convince myself that nurses, in the middle of the night, were simply not so strikingly beautiful, and that therefore she was a hallucination. Someone gorgeous enough to be a beauty pageant winner did not look meaningfully into your face as if it was a camera and then announce the death of the person you most loved. Of course, the desire for a delusion ensures that you cannot have one: the little story I told myself dematerialized long before it ended. It was not until much later that I summoned up the face and remembered how much I had once wanted it to be proof that I was having a nightmare. So okay: my brother's girlfriend had reminded me of the long-ago, beautiful messenger of death whose words changed my life forever. That still left the real girlfriend, the one who phoned me when her relationship with my brother ended, to see if I could shed any light (as she put it) on his abruptly dumping her and disappearing. She called begging me to meet her for coffee.
I had been working on an article about drag racing my copyediting job is a wonderful way to gather trivia, which is sometimes useful in conversation, though it more often appears, bizarrely, as bleeps in my dreams and had spent the morning preceding her call reading up on "red-lighting," the term for handicap racing, practiced by the driver profiled in the piece. I had been taking notes to make more accurate the writer's description of the helmet the driver wore, getting the terms right (eye port and vent port were, as I suspected, two separate things), when the phone rang and, through the answering machine's screening device, I heard Serena's voice and knew instantly that something was wrong.
In agreeing to get together with Serena, I didn't pretend to myself that empathy motivated me. It was more a matter of expedience; my intuition is good, and I could pick up many levels in her voice enough that if I didn't do what she wanted I knew she'd call back and become hysterical. My job, too, can be seen as an outgrowth of being self-protective. There was a time when I could sit at a desk amid colleagues and tolerate their eccentricities, listen to their problems, catch their colds, sympathize with their being misunderstood by the boss or by their husband or even by their cat. I enjoyed the dullness interrupted by sudden crisis; I took pride in being the person people came to with copy that needed to be sharpened immediately with whatever You fill in was missing. I'm still in contact with my former secretary, who lives in Seattle and works for Microsoft. I am the godmother of her youngest daughter and send the child pop-up books that she thanks me for with crayoned pictures in which everyone floats. They visited me two years ago at Thanksgiving, and we had a wonderful time hiking around in the snow, laughing and remembering old times. This friend met my brother on that trip back east and never indicated the slightest interest in him, beyond noticing the family resemblance, which might have been the first time I realized that I was always waiting for such a thing to happen: that my brother would put the moves on Darryl, or that Darryl would begin flirting with my brother. But there appeared to be zero chemistry. So much so that I wondered if something might have been going on behind my back. I remembered how oblivious every single student at our high school had been about Andrew's affair a silly word for teenagers, but that's what it was with Patty Arthur.
When Serena called I had just burned the toast and then spoken to an author in Stowe who had included in his book on Vermont life a number of recipes that apparently couldn't be reproduced, though he steadfastly maintained that they had been passed on to him by a retired baker. Angry readers had written the publisher, who had forwarded their complaints, along with the request that I find someone to test the recipes before the second edition was published. I suppose they thought I'd call my good buddy Julia Child, since she lived in the same town? What I did was re-create the recipes myself, making substitutions any cook could see would make more sense. How the writer mistook baking powder for yeast I'll never know, but that alone made some recipes bakeable, if not exactly delicious. As my improvised muffins were cooling, I put two slices of rye bread my usual breakfast in the toaster, because the muffins had turned out fine, but unlike everyone else on the planet, I preferred toast to muffins. As I was taking a quick shower, the toast burned, popping up black and smelly, the smoke permeating the house. It gave me a headache, and by the time Serena's call came I was already thinking seriously about just going out to clear my head before I started in on the afternoon's work.
I agreed to meet her, though I didn't want to. I did my best in our brief conversation to make sure that she understood that I knew perfectly well that there were two sides to every story, but that my loyalty was to my brother. I said I could assure her that he was not known to be impulsive, and had no history of being self-destructive (answering her two primary questions). I told her that I did not want to discuss Andrew's shortcomings, though I believed he had them. I suggested a place to meet. I added that I was sorry and that I liked her very much, personally. What I said was no longer entirely true, though by then at least I knew that my revised, queasy perception of her had to do with something that was not her fault at all. Before she was the messenger of death, she'd been the person who shoveled my walk, and subsequently included me many times when they went out on dates, as well as going out of her way to develop a friendship with me. She had invited me to a fashion show at Louis for which a model friend had given her tickets, and another time to a private tour of an exhibit she knew I wanted to see at the Gardner.
When I walked into the coffee shop, Serena was already there. I ordered at the counter and brought my cup of tea to her table. She smiled wanly. She said: "I respect the fact that you're loyal to your brother. I asked you to come because I thought I could make you see things my way. The thing is, Andrew's disappeared and I don't know what went wrong. I guess what I was wondering is whether you could tell me whether there might have been something I missed."
"Relationships are complicated," I said. That was such a vacuous remark that I added: "He and I aren't confidants. About something like this, he wouldn't necessarily say much of anything to me." I had still given her nothing. "I don't know anything it would help you to know," I said finally.
She looked up and asked: "Do you know about the baby?"
This question told me significantly more than I wanted to know.
"You didn't know we dated several years ago, did you?" She didn't wait for my answer. "I never know what you do or don't know," she said. "I got pregnant by accident. I knew he was involved with somebody else. You probably know who it was. In any case, I didn't know him very well, and I'd just started my first job. I didn't want a baby, and he was...well: he was horrified. I mean..."
I leaned forward, though I wanted to withdraw.
"I wouldn't say anything about this now, except that in some odd way it created a bond between us, and he kept in touch when I moved," she said. "Then he wanted me back. I was living with a composer in Denver, working for city government. I told you that. But he said he'd thought a lot about me. What I thought he'd thought about was the mess we'd gotten into, because that was what I'd thought about. But I did fly back for a weekend. And he swept me off my feet. When I went back to Denver, it was to pack my stuff and move. I wasn't here two weeks, and he wanted to marry me and have children. He didn't care which came first my getting pregnant or us getting married. And it scared me, because it seemed like he wanted to pretend the past hadn't happened. At the same time all of it was some intense, speeded-up version of our past, he..." She took a sip of her cold espresso. I let my tea sit there. "This time what? It was going to be like the other stuff didn't happen? The two years I'd spent with another man, his relationships with women, the abortion...so I asked him to come with me to this psychologist I'd seen just before I decided to go out to Denver. We went twice, and I think he sort of had the guy hoodwinked, a little. He toned down all the drama and sounded very rational well: he sounded like he really loved me, which now as we can both see, he couldn't possibly have...anyway: he's gone wherever he's gone, and I'm here to say good-bye."
"I'm really sorry," I said sincerely.
"I know," she said. "I know. I don't see why it had to end this way."
"I don't know where he is," I said. It was a half-truth. I knew he had been seeing some woman from work on the side, but I didn't know her name. I hadn't realized he hadn't been living in his apartment.
"I didn't have very warm gloves," she said, beginning another story somewhere in the middle, "and he came home that snowy, miserable day with a bag from Lord and Taylor with very nice gloves inside, and in one of them you already know this, but you don't know everything inside one finger was the ring, and I knew what it must be the minute my finger touched it. It took a few seconds to find the ring, and while I was doing that his expression changed from a what would you call it? from that sly smile of his to outright grinning, but then when I couldn't get it out right away, he grabbed the glove back and said, 'It's a sign that everything is wrong.' He shook it. The ring fell onto the floor. Then he started to cry."
This was not what I wanted to hear that my brother had become so unhinged. Also, her story was too long in the telling she was telling it to good effect, but she was making me suffer, just the way she had.
"I met you the same afternoon you got engaged," I said. "You both seemed very happy."
"We were! I wanted to marry him. But I'd never seen him so distraught. I thought: Does he really believe that a ring getting stuck in the finger of a glove is an omen, or was he worried all along? And don't you see I was right. I should have taken it more seriously, but I pretended...oh, I don't know what I pretended. That I'd ruined his surprise in some way, by being clumsy. He was embarrassed about getting so upset. We kissed and made up. Then nothing would do but that I put on the ring and the gloves, and a jacket, and we visit you. He was like a kid who'd made something in school, running home to show it to Mommy."
I realized that she was speaking metaphorically. Neither Andrew nor I could stand our mother, so her analogy wasn't a good one. More likely, we would have dropped our drawings in the trash.
"Do you know how he broke up with me? He left a note, coward that he was. He moved out while I was at work. All he said was that I would be happier without him which decoded meant: he'd be happier without me and that in big ways, and small ways, there was just too much sorrow between us." She stopped. "You wouldn't have an aspirin, would you?"
I rummaged in my bag, glad to provide something. She shook two pills from the little bottle and went to the counter to ask for a glass of water. When she came back, she said simply: "Thanks."
We sat there. For a few seconds I felt it was urgent that I think of some way to respond, and then for another few seconds I did my old trick of imagining myself floating above the scene. I peered down into the corridor of intensive care. In all the time I said nothing, she fiddled with her espresso spoon.
"I have no idea what goes on inside his head," I said. I couldn't resist: "Does the psychologist have any perspective on this?"
"I haven't gone back," she said.
"Maybe that would be someone to ask," I said gently.
She pursed her lips. She shifted, sat up straighter. "Right," she said.
"That was stupid of me to say. Cowardly, like my brother," I added.
"Right," she said again.
"I really don't understand it. Even if I asked, I can't believe he could account for himself in any way that would make sense."
She looked at me. This was an intensely unhappy person. "I'm sure there's no simple explanation," she said, "but do you think that because your mother was so passive, he assumes women are just there to be acted upon? Do you think this might be some baroque way of getting even?"
"I don't..." I had been about to repeat what I'd already said to her. I thought of our mother buying clothes that she intended to wear to night school, where she planned to study nursing. How uncharacteristic that she had once done something that might have brought her closer to our father. Or maybe our parents had been closer in a time I couldn't remember. Maybe he had wanted her to work in his office. She had not even finished the first year of school. I was not sure whether the drinking made it difficult for her to study, or whether her inability to focus on the work had made her pick up the bottle. Andrew maintained that he remembered a fight in which my father screamed at her, over and over, that one did not learn nursing by sitting in a movie theater. Andrew went down the hall. Our father had our mother cornered. "This is not this," Andrew remembered him saying, pantomiming a silly dance step, then pantomiming giving an injection. "This is not this," he had apparently said, kissing an imaginary lover, then touching his ears with an invisible stethoscope to listen to a heartbeat. He took himself so seriously. Maybe Andrew's problem or part of it was that he did, too. At the very least, he eventually made sure, in every significant relationship, to do something that would necessitate the other person's taking him entirely seriously.
"I'm going back to England to work in my family's business," Serena said. She unzipped the fanny pack she wore around her waist. Perched on the stool, she looked vulnerable, her silky hair falling in front of her face, her mouth set in determination. She took out a business card. "That's where you can reach me if you ever come to London," she said. "I'd like to see you. I didn't exactly get around to saying all I came here to say, but I don't want to take any more of your time. Don't give the card to him it's just for you. I enjoyed our friendship, even though it was just beginning. And the other thing and then I'll go is that I have to confess to at least one person that I am the stupidest woman on the planet. I'm going from here to a clinic to have another abortion. You're going to die from shock, I'm so full of bad news. I'm sorry. It's unbelievable how stupid I was. But your brother, I have to tell you, is a monster. I know I'm overstepping my bounds, but I had to say it to someone, and I don't know where Andrew is."
I didn't know where he was, either. At his job, with its flexible hours, where he was valued so highly? His job at the computer company, where he always said they liked you more, the less you liked them? Playing handball with Hound at the gym? Pumping himself up to look great in another woman's arms? He had a way of being omnipresent, though he was almost always somewhere else. That was Andrew: on the way from something, on the way to something. He gave the impression that his life happened in the transitions between activities, in his movements from person to person.
Serena put her hand on my shoulder as she walked away, and under the light touch I felt so heavyhearted, so flat-footed that even though my impulse was to follow her, even though I debated running after her long after she'd left, I only sat there, eventually taking up the same spoon she'd fiddled with and placing it in the empty espresso cup.
Outside, people crowded the sidewalk, hurrying wherever they were going. A glum-looking teenage girl in platform shoes clomped along on spindly legs, coltish and unsteady, her eyes as black-rimmed as a raccoon's.
As I walked home, I tried to think what I wanted to say to Andrew, but the more I obsessed about it, the foggier I became about what should be said. I'd told her the truth when I said I couldn't read his mind. No one can read anyone's mind, except that certain people can have a pretty good idea of what goes on in certain other people's minds when they've known them all their lives. So I guessed that she was right that he had been trying to atone for the past by reenacting it as part of the present. He did have an impulsive streak, I decided.
Though he'd never prefaced the story by saying that he'd dropped everything to do whatever he'd done, or that the idea had struck him like a bolt of lightning, eventually I came to realize that on the day he'd flown off to reunite with a girl from high school he'd been at work in the morning and halfway across the country by dinnertime. He presented these rendezvous as somewhat harried and comic, as if he were a clown stooping to scoop up his hat, instead of boarding a plane and disembarking to rent a car and drive to the home of someone who was for all intents and purposes a stranger. He was strange, but so was Serena. I began rationalizing Andrew's behavior, but reminding myself of the very things I'd said to her: that there were two sides to every story; that if asked, I doubted whether he could shed much light on his actions. Stronger rationalization set in later: I wondered if there wasn't something problematic about a woman who got pregnant twice by the same man, when she did not want his child. And really: swept off her feet? No difference whether they married first or the pregnancy preceded the marriage? She was as impulsive as he was.
By the time I put the key in my door, I was better. Shaky, but calmer. But I should have left a window open: the sharp smell of burnt bread still permeated the house, and my headache resumed immediately.
Copyright © 2002 by Irony and Pity, Inc.
Reading Group Guide
A Scribner Reading Group Guide
The Doctor's House
1. Nina describes her connection with her brother, Andrew, in this way: "I was a touchstone, and when things got too crazy in his life, he had a tendency to want to retreat to surer, safer territory" (page 15). Do you think that Nina is an effective touchstone? How does his dependence on her both help and hinder him in moving forward in life?
2. As a boy, Andrew used to bring home drawings, then casually discard them to impress his sister. How does this relate to his adult relationships with women? Is Nina complicit in the choices Andrew makes?
3. Andrew observes of Nina that "within the confines of her house, she sets her own rules" (page 188). How would you interpret that characterization? What do you make of Nina's antisocial tendencies and her career editing other people's work?
4. Why is it significant that Nina is assigned to edit an essay that concerns her own family? How do Josie Bower and the events she writes about give shape to the novel?
5. Why do you think Ann Beattie decided to tell the story from three separate perspectives? Did your sympathies shift as you read each person's story? Why do you think the father's perspective is missing?
6. When Nina learns of Andrew's enthusiasm for looking up women from high school, she reflects: "in trying to reconnect, he'd been trying to work his way back to something. Bodies held history" (page 106). What does it mean for bodies to hold history?
7. Nina insists that her mother rejected her as a child, while Andrew holds that it was Nina, instead, who rejected their mother. Where do you think the blame if any lies in their troubled relationship? How did reading about Nina's grandmother enhance your understanding of Nina and her mother? In what ways does Nina resemble her mother?
8. Andrew implies that the biggest mistake of his life was that he never stood up to his father. Do you think he's right? How has Andrew's character been changed because of this? What has he learned from his father about what it means to be a man?
9. How reliable are these characters as narrators? What lies, omissions, and misapprehensions make each narrator unreliable? Why are our real-life personal fictions necessary?
10. How does the presence of "the doctor," as their father refers to himself, continue to cast a shadow over Nina and Andrew, even as adults? In what ways are they still living in "the doctor's house"?
11. What is the role of the fairy stories in the novel? What light do they shed on Nina and Andrew's childhood, and what can the last one tell us about Nina as an adult?
12. At the close of her section of the book, Nina says that she's been "living outside my own life" (page 120), so wrapped up in other people's lives that she's not involved in her own. Do you agree that she is as passive as she feels she is? Is it passive to be wrapped up in others' lives?
13. What does Patty Arthur represent for Andrew, and what meaning, if any, will her death hold for him?
14. The novel ends with an image of Andrew, once again "flying" back to Nina after a crisis. How did you feel about this ending? How is it consistent with what we've learned about these characters all along?
15. What is the effect of interweaving exotic Morocco into the novel's mundane American setting? Is this "strangeness" related to the novel's fairy tales interspersed throughout the "realistic" story?