Sunday, April 17, 2011

Health and Happiness by Diane Johnson

Doctors are only human


A hospital is its own little world, filled with greed or lust or petty malice. At the same time, hospitals and Western medicine are pinnacles of our civilization because they halt death and restore patients to life.   Sort of like Jesus.  A hospital can also kill patients, which is one of the subplots in this novel. Once again, as I read my way through her collected fiction, I was very impressed by Diane Johnson's world creation skills.

The story begins a little stiffly, then I was immediately sucked in. The major characters are Philip Watts, senior professor of medicine, an excellent thoughtful doctor, though also something of a goody two shoes martinet; Ivy Tarro, a slightly dippy flower child who comes to the hospital with a minor ailment and is almost killed; and Mimi Franklin, the slightly pitiful divorcee who is head of Volunteers.

This book is as elaborately plotted and as filled with characters as a tv show’s bible - - and yet this is not clich√© genre fiction – real things are happening inside the walls of this building. I think Diane Johnson’s approach is to use a comic vision to observe many things, including tragedies, such as the gifted young man with sickle cell anemia, the thoughtful old lady who is being kept alive by artificial measures, the brain dead meathead who overdosed on cocaine. Much of the book is not politically correct, but it’s inherently interesting. A glimpse into a San Francisco hospital is a look at the cultural mish mash that is America.

I learned something about modern medicine and something about plotting, the way the minor characters are used as plot points. Also there’s sort of a quiet political commentary on the high cost of health care, the inability of seemingly rational people to pull the plug on a near death loved one, and the hardly suppressed materialism of most doctors.  Excellent writing.

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