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The Doctor's House

Ann Beattie

The Doctor's House

Author:Ann Beattie

By Michael Anft | Posted 3/6/2002

Beneath the civil veneer of family relationships lies Ann Beattie territory. The author's talent for deconstructing the lies behind the maternal apron and the manicured lawn have earned her a rightful spot alongside literary legends as far-flung as John Cheever and Raymond Carver.

In The Doctor's House, Beattie's seventh novel and her first in five years, the horrors of domesticity are once again laid bare through novel-as-psychodrama--albeit psychodrama with a leavening dose of wit and Beattie's typical dead-on, ironic, and knowing dialogue. Set in upscale Cambridge, Mass., the novel dissects the pathologies of an unsurnamed family unhinged by its character flaws. In the book's three sections, Beattie allows the withdrawn and widowed Nina; her satyric brother, Andrew; and their embittered, beaten mother to tell their tales of How Things Went Wrong.

Much of The Doctor's House is set in a past redolent of Betty Crocker cakes and reeking of highballs. The duality is obvious as Nina recounts her and Andrew's enforced closeness, the result of their father's sadism and philandering and their mother's chronic alienation and alcoholism. Their bond, wrought from fear, leads them to back up each other even as they behave badly. Andrew protects Nina, allowing her to live in a world made up of fantasy and fairies. (Her childhood stories provide segues between the novel's narratives.) In turn, Nina humors Andrew, going so far as to wield the camera during a nude photo shoot Andrew orchestrates with neighbor girls.

Despite the suburban banality of it all, Beattie has fun with the fallibility of each narrator's memory. Each of them has rationalized, denied, and defense-mechanism-ed themselves into a corner that is warm, if not cozy. They can live with themselves, though not necessarily with each other or each other's memories.

The novel's setting in the present is what drives Beattie's story, however. The Casanova-complected, middle-aged Andrew's obsession with calling old female friends from high school--an idea he got from a porn movie--leads his many jilted lovers to trust in Nina, who loathes her brother for his heartlessness even as she lives vicariously through the sordidness of his life. Beattie's craft in bringing all of these competing strains together is breathtaking, making The Doctor's House that ultimate rarity: a page-turner with brains.

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