Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Club Forum #20: The Heart Specialist

Book Selection Status:  READ
Month: October 2011
Genre:  Fiction Literature
Book of the Month: The Heart Specialist
Author: Claire Holden Rothman
Question source:

Discussion Questions:

1. One of the central images of the novel is a misshapen, three‐chambered human heart in a laboratory bottle. Human hearts normally have four chambers – two atria and two ventricles – but the Howlett Heart, as it is called in the book, has only one ventricle, which confuses Agnes
White when she discovers it in the McGill museum of pathology. At first she thinks it is reptilian or perhaps amphibian, but eventually she realizes it's human, albeit gravely defective. She publishes an article about it in a scholarly journal, a first step in what will become her celebrated
career in heart medicine. The deformed heart is also the first of a series of clues leading to her missing father, and it figures in her discovery of love at the novel’s end. What does the Howlett Heart evoke for you? What are its functions in the novel?

2. The Heart Specialist tells the story of a young woman trying to enter medicine at a time when
this was nearly impossible. Other characters in the novel are marginalized as well. Agnes’s lab
assistant Jakob Hertzlich is marginalized because of his religion. Her colleague Dugald Rivers is
marginalized due to sexual orientation. These characters are all hurt by a society with overly
rigid definitions of social roles. Which characters in the novel are marginal? Which are
mainstream? What impact does this have on their fates?

3. Vision is a motif in this novel. Agnes White is myopic. George Skerry is constantly removing her
spectacles and rubbing the lenses clean. HonorĂ© Bourret is half‐blind when Agnes finally meets
him at the novel`s end, and shortly after that meeting, Agnes declares, ``I just opened my eyes
for the first time in fifty years. It certainly took me long enough. I had built my life on a dream.``
Discuss vision and its symbolic importance in this book.

4. In section VI of the novel, entitled War, Agnes White laments that she has been forced, due to
her sex, to stay in Montreal, while her male colleagues head off to France to serve in the First
World War. She is deeply jealous of them. After reading letters from Dugald Rivers, however,
her view shifts. ``From that day until I died,`` she declares, ``I would offer up prayers of thanks
for the good fortune of having been born a woman.`` Agnes White has conflicting feelings about
womanhood. Would you characterize her as a feminist?

5. Agnes White pursues a career in medicine in large part as an attempt to enter the world of her
missing father. The father quest is an archetypal story form, found in ancient myth and legend.
In the Greek myths, for instance, Theseus goes in search of his missing father, Aegeus, and in the
process proves himself a hero. Likewise, young Telemachus searches for his missing father
Odysseus, and proves his own courage and worth. Discuss the ways in which The Heart Specialist
is a father quest, with a twist.

6. Love is hard to achieve in this novel filled with hearts. Is there a successful love relationship

7. The Heart Specialist was inspired by one of Canada`s first female physicians, Doctor Maude
Abbott. Does this fact change your approach to the novel? How?

8. The act of story‐telling is important in The Heart Specialist. Twice, Agnes White recounts the
story of her life: the first time to William Howlett in Baltimore, and the second to George Skerry
by the river in Saint Andrew`s East, right at the novel`s end. Why are these two scenes
important in the novel?

9. Compare the two sisters, Laure and Agnes. One picked a more traditional female life, the other
charted new waters. What were their fates? Now add George Skerry into the mix. What kinds of
options for happiness and fulfillment did women have in the society depicted in this novel?

10. This novel opens with death, and death seems to follow Agnes White wherever she goes. In
part, this is because of her profession. But could the death be metaphoric as well as literal?
Must Agnes White die in this novel, to be figuratively reborn?