A dead body floating by a pier. An elderly woman curled up on a bed in a department store. A psychiatrist searching for her own identity. These are the pieces of the puzzle that, in John Sedgwick's masterful novel of psychological suspense, begin to come into focus when Madeline Bemis is referred to the treatment of Dr. Alice Matthews at Montrose Psychiatric Hospital.
The personal values of what could be called Upper Boston are as important as the two main characters Mrs. Bemis and Alice Matthews, the young psychiatrist who tries to help her in journalist and author Sedgwick's engaging and warm if finally confounding novel. Since Madeline Bemis is 76 when Dr. Matthews finds her curled up almost catatonic on a bed in Filene's department store, it's obvious that treating her will involve considerable backtracking. Equally obvious is that these two women one from a working-class family in a rust-belt town, the other imperious and rigid after a lifetime in the Brahmin precincts will find commonalities in the process. When she was 18, Madeline was engaged to a bomber copilot stationed in England during WWII. Waiting at home for her life to begin, she had an affair with an Irish gardener who left her pregnant. She was sent away to have the baby and give him up for adoption. When her fiance returned, permanently disabled, they settled into a remote marriage. Sedgwick (The Dark House) creates a striking portrait of Mrs. Bemis's time and place, as well as of likable but insecure Dr. Matthews, who is battling her own professional and emotional problems. The plotting is less assured, with a central mystery that's resolved in a melodramatic fashion, but the narrative succeeds as an appealing story of a shared journey.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 29, 2003
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Excerpt from The Education of Mrs. Bemis by John Sedgwick
She was in Filene's downtown, trying to decide about bath towels. The ones she'd had since college--like the silly, "Welcome to Disneyland" beach towel sent to her by her older sister the travel agent and the plush one an ex-boyfriend had lifted from the Four Seasons--didn't seem quite right anymore. But which did? She stood before a long wall of towels in every possible color and texture, each variation fraught, no doubt, with psychosocial significance. Should she go for midsize or full? Burgundy? Chartreuse? Mist gray? And would four be enough? Her new love, Ethan, slept over fairly often these days, and her new living room sofa pulled out to accommodate other visitors. All these decisions.
Alice looked considerably younger than twenty-eight. Girlish, from most angles, with a shy smile, blue eyes that people were always commenting on, and an endearing softness to her cheeks; she wore her hair down to her shoulders in a simple cut. Alice was a first-year psychiatric resident at Montrose Psychiatric Hospital, the distinguished, Harvard-affiliated institution to the west of Boston, in Concord, but, to her distress, people still sometimes took her for a teenage candy striper. Nevertheless, she was Doctor Matthews now, so she had to think more about appearances.
Dr. Matthews. In truth, that still seemed to her like somebody else, somebody more substantial. But, having finally secured a legitimate, paying job after four years of medical school, and another for an internship, she'd upgraded her apartment, moving out of her med-student studio in a litter-strewn section of the Fenway and into a reasonably nice single-bedroom along a tree-lined street in North Cambridge, by the Somerville line. Not that big, but it was just her and Fido, the mouse she'd saved after a psychology experiment at BU. Now she needed towels.