“Other Women’s Children” by Perri Klass: The Doctor as Literary Heroine

PerriKlassNovel-CindyFazziPhotoBook Review: “Other Women’s Children” by Perri Klass, published by Random House, 1990

In my debut romance book, I chose a young ER doctor as my heroine. She has stirred up strong reactions, both good and bad. Perhaps I should have written about a teacher or a caterer or some other profession commonly used in romance, but reading this excellent novel by Perri Klass reinforced my belief that physicians make great heroines.

“Other Women’s Children” is about Dr. Amelia Stern, a Boston pediatrician, and her struggles in her career and family life. There isn’t a single huge conflict in this novel. Instead we get to follow Amelia as she faces her day-to-day challenges.

We are introduced to her patients, such as Darren, a 3-year-old dying of AIDS, and Sara, a FTT (failure to thrive) baby, which means she’s not gaining weight and developing as expected. We get to know the parents and grandparents of Amelia’s patients, most of them poor, but some of them rich. We become privy to hospital politics, such as how a team decides whether a patient should be on DNR (do not resuscitate) status and the circumstances that call for the involvement of judges and lawyers in making a decision.

Doctor and Writer

As a pediatrician who writes about a pediatrician, Klass has an authoritative voice. She doesn’t dumb it down for the layperson. She’s comfortable using and explaining ER and ICU terms. She writes about medicine in acceptable doses.

Klass, the author of several novels and nonfiction books, can make even a routine checkup lyrical. Here’s how she describes one of Amelia’s patients: “He is an uncommonly beautiful baby, with pale cornsilk hair and beautiful long arms and legs. He still has the newborn aura…Still moves his hands aimlessly in underwater ballet, still smells of the dark waters of the womb, however well anointed with baby powder, baby oil, baby lotion.”

This novel is somewhat experimental, going back and forth between third-person and first-person point of view. The narrative is sometimes fragmented, jumping from the present to bursts of the past.

Doctor as Literary Heroine

The characters in this book are bright, funny, and sympathetic. But it’s Amelia who captivates me from the start. She’s intelligent, sensitive, and conscientious. She can be sarcastic, but her sarcasm is tempered by her sense of humor.

I can relate to Amelia’s guilt as a working mother (especially when her own son gets sick while she’s busy attending to other women’s children), her insecurities as a woman, and even her desire for the father of her son’s best friend. I like the way Amelia’s love for Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is weaved into the novel.

From Dr. Zhivago to Hannibal Lecter, the most famous doctors in literature are men. It’s refreshing and deeply satisfying to read about a highly competent female doctor who’s also a memorable character—a literary heroine for our times.

One of my dearest friends, a published poet and an academic, recommended this book. This is my way of passing along the recommendation.

Perri Klass

Klass, a Harvard Medical School graduate, is also a professor of journalism and pediatrics at NYU. Read more about her: http://www.perriklass.com/


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