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The Heart Specialist

1 rating: 4.0
A book by Claire Holden Rothman

Set in Quebec at the turn of the 19th to 20th century,The Heart Specialistis the epic story of Agnes White, a lonely orphaned girl fascinated by the "wrong" things—microscopes, dissections, and anatomy instead of more ladylike interests—who … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri
Author: Claire Holden Rothman
Publisher: Soho Press
1 review about The Heart Specialist

"True" Fiction: Why Letting the Facts Get in the Way of the Story Is a Questionable Idea

  • Jun 23, 2010

Is it fair for a writer to take the life of a real person, switch it around, add bits, fill in the gaps--in short, make a fiction of it?

That's what I've been thinking about lately, as Claire Holden Rothman's interesting The Heart Specialist has been discussed around me. The book, Rothmans says, is "inspired" by Maud Abbott (1869-1940,)  one of the first female physicans in North America.  She fought unsuccessfully to get a medical education at McGill University in Montreal, but finally suceeded at Bishop's University in nearby Sherbrooke Quebec. She did pioneering work in the study and classification of heart anamolies which are still referred to in medical literature. But McGill, until recently at least, did not honour her as it has honoured other of its leading lights: there is a portrait of her in the Faculty Club, but it hangs in the lounge that was until the 1970s the only place where women were allowed aside from the dining room.

Rothman says she drew extensively on Abbott's experience,  but that she has tried to imagine the emotional life of a woman like Abbott, who never married and apparently left little clue about her loves.  Rothman has invented a love interest for her heroine and given her a motivating quest for an absent father. The result is a good read, and one that is selling briskly. But is it fair to play such games with a real person? Wouldn't it have been better just to write a biography?

I'm not sure. Historical fiction takes two forms: one (which includes War and Peace and Gone with the Wind) where the reader encounters real people, but in which the point of view characters are invented, and another where the historical figures take center stage. Sandra Gulland's novels about Josephine are examples of this second sort, and Gulland prides herself on basing everything on documentary evidence. I did something similar in my book about the Lower Canadian patriot (and physician) Robert Nelson in The Words on the Wall, although I had to fill in bits and pieces of his life it's a novel with 198 footnotes, including one which explains why I imagined his marriage the way I did.

Maybe what it boils down to is this: does the novel "inspired" by a person work? Success excuses everything when it comes to good writing. A case in point is Mary Novik's excellent Conceit, which imagines the life of John Donne's wife from her point of view. But that standard is very high, and few attain it.

As I finish a couple of book projects and look around for new ones, I find myself tempted by doing something with the lives of writers underappreciated in the English speaking world--Marguerite Duras and Machado de Assis, for example. You can be sure there will be more on this later.

The portraits of Maude Abbott are from official McGill Medical Museum website.

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