Hilma Wolitzer Turns to Domestic Angst

Detail from the cover of Hilma Wolitzer's 'The Doctor's Daughter'

hide captionDetail from the cover of Hilma Wolitzer's The Doctor's Daughter.

Random House

A middle-aged woman awakens one morning to a sense of dread, a malaise so deep that she studiously analyzes her life — both past and present — to uncover its source. So begins Hilma Wolitzer's new book, The Doctor's Daughter.

The novel's main character, Alice Brill, is caught between the past and present, between the idyllic life her parents shared and her own failure to duplicate it. A book editor, Alice eventually finds hope as she works with a new writer. But she must also discover more about her own past.

Wolitzer has won both Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, and previous books include Hearts, Ending and Tunnel of Love. The Doctor's Daughter is Wolitzer's first work of fiction in 10 years. Her first novel was published when she was 44. Her daughter is the best-selling author Meg Wolitzer.

Excerpt: 'The Doctor's Daughter'

The moment I awoke I knew that something was terribly wrong. I could feel it in that place behind my breastbone, where bad news always slides in like junk mail through a slot. It was there that I first acknowledged my parents would die someday ("Oh, sweetheart, but not for such a long, long time!"); where I knew I was ugly and would never be loved; where I suffered spasms of regret about my marriage and my children, and fear of their deaths and of my own. God knows there were plenty of things wrong in the larger world I could easily have named, and that aroused a similar sense of dread, but whatever was lodged in my chest that April morning was personal, not global. I knew that much, at least.

Was it something I'd done, or forgotten to do? There was a vague suggestion of amnesia, of loss, but when I tried to pin down its source, it proved to be elusive, a dream dissolving in daylight. In fact, I'd had a dream just before waking, but the content was obscured by a kind of white scrim. The only thing I could remember was the whiteness. And I couldn't discuss any of this with Everett — we'd quarreled again the night before and were being stonily polite. And what if my awful feeling turned out to be about him?

So I put it all aside while we ate breakfast, chaperoned by CNN and the Times, and chatted about Iraq and the weather and the eggs on our plates. I told myself that this was what long-married people do, even when things are good between them. Then I had a flash of my parents in their nightclothes, slow-dancing to the radio in their Riverdale kitchen.

After Ev left for work, I grabbed my bag and left the apartment, too. I had to go to the bank, and then I was going to buy a sandwich and sit near the East River to read manuscripts. Maybe the bank would be my last stop — it wasn't safe to walk around this crazy city with that much money.

Our doorman and the doorman from the building next door were outside in the sunlight, taking a breather from the bell jars of their lobbies. It must have rained the night before; the drying pavement gave off that sour-sweet musk I love, and up and down York Avenue, the ginkgo and honey locusts were suddenly, lushly budding. At fifty-one and with everything I knew, I was still such a sucker for spring. I probed for that sensitive spot in my chest as I walked, almost jogged, along in my jeans and Reeboks, outpacing kids in business suits, and it seemed diminished by then, practically gone. It probably really was only the residue of a bad dream.

Outside Sloan-Kettering, patients tethered to their IVs were smoking, the way my girlfriends and I used to smoke near our high school, looking furtive and defiant at once. My father drove by in his Lincoln one day and caught me. "Alice!" he yelled. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Oh, shit," I muttered, feeling my face and neck blotch, that curse of redheads. I dropped the cigarette — a stylish, mentholated Kool — and tried to make a run for it. But he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the car, where he bellowed and shook me, while my friends gaped at us through the tinted windows as if we were fighting fish in an aquarium.

It was the worst thing I could have done; my father was a surgeon, the venerated chief of surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. He drove me directly there that day, and waved lurid photographs of cancerous lungs in my face, and made me look through his microscope at cells gone amok, like adolescent girls.

That wasn't the first time I'd disappointed him. I wasn't a boy, to begin with; I wasn't even the next best thing, a girl with an aptitude for science. And I didn't look like my mother. That day in the lab, I gravely promised him I'd never smoke again. "Daddy, I won't, I swear," I said. "I don't even like it." I think I even coughed a few times, for dramatic effect. Sin upon sin. In truth, I loved smoking, the deliciously acrid taste and how worldly I thought I looked with a cigarette drooping from my ragged, ink-stained fingers.

I was fifteen years old then and I still called him Daddy. I never stopped calling him that. And my Mother was "Mother," always, like the benevolent queen in the Grimms' fairy tale "The Goose Girl," which she often read to me at bedtime. I'm still haunted by its recurring lament:

Alas! Queen's daughter, there thou gangest.

If thy mother knew thy fate,

Her heart would break with grief so great.

As a child, I didn't really get all that archaic usage, or other words in the story, like cambric and knacker. But listening to my mother read "The Goose Girl" aloud as she lay next to me at night initiated my lifelong romance with language. The plot was electrifying, with its drama of switched identities, talking drops of blood, and a decapitated horse's head (also verbal), more than a century before Mario Puzo. And the message, that children, especially girls, are responsible for their mothers' happiness, was profound and unsettling. I became determined never to break my mother's heart, any more than I would break her back by inadvertently stepping on a sidewalk crack. And I meant to keep my promise to my father about not smoking again.

Passing the Mary Manning Walsh home at 71st Street, I thought of him, imprisoned since early winter in that other place, the one he'd always called, with a theatrical shudder, the "Cadillac" of nursing homes. "I'd rather be dead, Alice," he once said, pointedly, as if he were extracting another, unspoken promise. The Hebrew Home for the Aged isn't very far from the house where we once lived, although since his confinement my father didn't remember that proximity or appreciate the sad irony of it. He didn't remember a lot of things, including me most of the time, a likely source of misery in any grown child's breast. But somehow I knew it wasn't the source of mine. Maybe that was because I'd had several months to deal with the gradual death of my father's personality, a dress rehearsal for the big event.

Occasionally, he would still ask after my mother. "And how is Helen?" was the way he'd put it, a ghost-like version of his old courtly self. The first time he asked, I was so dismayed I couldn't speak. After that, I tried telling him the truth, but he always received it as fresh, agonizing news, and he'd grieve for a few awful moments before he went blank again. I couldn't keep putting him, and myself, through that, so I began to simply say, "She's fine." But once I saw him flinch when I said it, and I amended my lie to reflect his absence from home. "Getting along as best she can, Daddy," I said.

"But who's taking care of her?" he asked, with the perseverance of demented logic.

The worms, I thought, but I said, "Why, I am. And Faye, of course." And he finally sank back in his wheelchair, assuaged. Faye had been our family's housekeeper during my childhood — if he could bend time, well, then so could I. As I crossed East End Avenue to enter Carl Schurz Park, I realized that I hadn't visited my father in almost two weeks. I had to go and see him soon, but not on such a perfect day.

There was the usual pedestrian parade in the park. Runners went by wearing wristbands and earphones. Babies were being pushed in their strollers and the elderly in their wheelchairs, like a fast-forwarded film on the human life cycle. The pigeons paced, as if they'd forgotten they could fly, and dogs circled and sniffed one another while their owners, in a tangle of leashes, exchanged shy, indulgent smiles.

The homeless man who screamed was quietly sunning himself on my favorite bench, so I sat a few benches away, next to a woman absorbed in a paperback. I glanced at the cover, expecting a bodice ripper or a whodunit, but she was reading Proust, in French. Touché. The river glittered and flowed on the periphery of my vision as I took the manuscripts out of my bag. I was sure they would distract me from whatever was worrying me; they always did, even when I knew what was on my mind. There were four new submissions that day, three nonfiction proposals and a few chapters of a novel in progress. I began to read, and quickly set aside, the first three submissions. After all this time, I can usually tell before the end of the first paragraph if a writer has any talent.

My training began in 1974 at the literary publishing house of Grace & Findlay, where I mostly answered the phones, typed and filed for the editors, and read through the slush pile. It was only a summer internship, between Swarthmore and an MFA, and before I knew it some lowly reader at another publisher was going to discover my novel in their slush pile and make me rich and famous. That never happened, though. All I ever received were standard letters of rejection, the ones that say "Thank you for thinking of us, but your manuscript doesn't meet our needs right now," with the hidden subtext: This is precisely what we hate. Do try us again when hell freezes over.

A few years later, I joined the enemy, becoming an assistant editor at G&F, and I was still there, in a senior position, last June, when they merged with a multinational communications group and let me go. I understood that my firing was merely a fiscal matter, and I saw it coming, like a storm darkening a radar screen. But I felt shocked and betrayed anyway, even with the generous severance package.

At first I missed everything about my job — the physical place, my colleagues, my daily sense of purpose, and especially the work itself — with an ache akin to mourning. I decided that this was what it would be like to be dead, but still hovering restlessly at the edges of the living world. There were a few job offers at less prestigious houses, with lower pay and reduced status, and I swiftly, scornfully declined them. Ev says that I went nuts for a while, and I suppose he's right, if crying jags and episodes of misplaced rage are valid clinical signs. "Al," he reasoned one night, "you'll do something else, something new." What did he have in mind — tap dancing? Brain surgery? Part of the trouble was that I believed he was secretly pleased.

He had been in competition with me ever since graduate school in Iowa, where we'd met in a fiction workshop. Even his strapping good looks seemed like a weapon then. To be fair, I was pretty critical of his work, too, a defensive response, really. Everyone there was madly competitive and ambitious, despite the caveats of our instructor, Phil Santo, a mild- tempered, mid-list novelist who kept reiterating that he wasn't running a writing contest — there would be no winners or losers — and that we only had to compete with the most recent drafts of our own stories. "Make it new!" he exhorted us. "Make it better!"

Of course there were winners; soon after graduation two of the men in our workshop went on to capture the fame and fortune we had all craved. And the rest of us, accordingly, became losers. Ev never published anything, either, but I think we both knew that I had come out ahead. At least I'd become a handmaiden in heaven, while he ended up at his family's printing firm, Carroll Graphics — brochures, letterheads, that sort of thing.

So, right after my dismissal, which my friend Violet Steinhorn wryly referred to as my "fall from Grace and Findlay," I read all of Ev's unexpected kindnesses to me, like the freshly squeezed orange juice and impromptu foot massages, as condescending and, at heart, unkind. In return, I withheld my sexual favors for a while, or gave them robotically, until I was proved to be right.

At Violet's urging I went into therapy for a few months, where I mostly wept while the psychologist, Andrea Stern, passed a box of Kleenex to me and crossed and uncrossed her legs. I stopped seeing her soon after she pointed out, and I agreed, that I was avoiding any reference to anything else in my current or past life besides my job. "I can't right now," I said. "Everything hurts too much." And she invited me to come back whenever I was ready.

Then, slowly, I began to recover on my own, to actually enjoy my newfound freedom to read just for pleasure, and go to museums or the movies in the middle of the afternoon. One day I made a lunch date with Lucy Seo, a book designer at G&F I'd stayed in touch with. She was full of industry chatter, and she kept looking at her watch because she had to get back to work. I guess it was contagious or still in my blood, because I became just as restive. I had to work, too. That's when I came up with my brainstorm, and placed ads in The New York Review of Books and Poets and Writers. "The book doctor is in. Seasoned editor will help you to make your manuscript better."

The response was immediate and enormous. Some of the letters, of course, were from the kinds of crazies and lonely souls I used to hear from when I was a reader at G&F: people burning to write about their abductions to other planets, or paeans in verse to their departed pets. But there were serious, interesting proposals, too — more than I could handle — and the recovered satisfaction of doing something I liked that was also worthwhile.

The ad was a little precious, and I couldn't help thinking how disdainful my father would have been if he'd seen it. He didn't believe even PhDs had the right to call themselves doctors. Violet, another physician's daughter, teased me about practicing without a license. And she was right, it did seem slightly illicit. But as the more open-minded Lucy pointed out, editing is actually analogous to medicine, with its orderly process of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment.

I never made any promises to my clients about publication, but most of the projects I took on seemed to have a decent shot, and by choosing carefully I still allowed myself lots of time for personal pursuits and for my family. After I left the park that April day, I was going to go up the street to the ATM at Chase and withdraw five hundred dollars from my private money market account. In a day or two I would give it all to my son Scott, who had asked me for a loan.

He'd said that it was just a temporary cash-flow problem, but he hadn't paid back the other, smaller "loans" I'd made to him in recent months. "This isn't for drugs, Scotty, is it?" I asked, and he held both hands up as if to halt oncoming traffic. "Hey, whoa!" he said. And then he explained that he'd just gone overboard on some things he needed, clothes and CDs, stuff like that.

Excerpted from The Doctor's Daughter by Hilma Wolitzer Copyright (c) 2006 by Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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