Nutritionists will tell you it’s dangerous to shop for food when you’re hungry and more likely to wander into Twinkieland. For me, the real peril lurks in Wegmans’ book aisle, where on a recent Friday afternoon, I picked up The Doctor and the Diva, the debut novel by Adrienne McDonnell. “Some books just naturally enslave you,” read the Washington Post blub on the cover, and after a long week, I was trolling for enslavement, happy to submit to McDonnell’s unusual tale of opera and obstetrics.
Reproduction has always been a fascinating, messy business. Medical procedures with test tubes, slides, and syringes are perfectly normal to us now, but in Boston in 1903, young Dr. Ravell seems like a wizard to couples desperate to conceive. When a wealthy businessman and his opera singer wife approach him for help, he agrees to take them on. Complicating matters, he hears the soprano, Erika von Kessler, perform Paisello’s “Il mio ben quando verrà” and falls in love.
"When my beloved comes/to see his love in grief, beautiful flowers will cover/the sunburnt shore. But I do not see him/Alas, my beloved does not come."
The doctor is more or less a man of honor. He performs all the usual tests and practices to help the couple get pregnant. He befriends them. He makes house calls. Nothing works. Then he lights on another solution that changes their lives.
The novel is inspired by the author’s family history, the tantalizing pull of art, and the wild unpredictability of love, with an inventive story moving from Boston to the Caribbean and finally to Florence over a decade. McDonnell’s detailed descriptions of cities, jungles, and lavish meals surge with color. By comparison, scenes involving sex or singing unfold in bland, clinical language. The writing is economical. The plot offers many rewarding, unexpected twists.
To understand the challenges of becoming an opera star, McDonnell read memoirs of Nellie Melba, Enrico Caruso, and Renée Fleming, as well as the Ira Glacken’s biography Yankee Diva: Lillian Nordica and the Golden Age of Opera. Admirably, the author casts an unromantic eye on the emotional hazards facing a married woman with artistic ambitions, and the consequences of Erika von Kessler’s choices lead to poignant scenes between the soprano and her child that cannot fail to move anyone who’s wanted both an all-consuming career and a thriving family.
I read The Doctor and the Diva in one sitting, enslaved, while the snow piled up outside.