'Doctor's House': Ann Beattie at her best

February 17, 2002|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Doctor's House, by Ann Beattie. Scribner. 280 pages. $24.

Soap operas, whether pulpy or artful, appeal to patient viewers and patient readers. You have to enjoy the quiet parts, the teasing out of family history, the nearly obsessive focus on "relationships," the weird timelessness of a world where no one ever visits a friend without revealing or fishing for a dark sexual secret, or cracks a genuinely funny joke or expresses an opinion about baseball, movies, or national politics.

I'm tempted to say I find the well-told soap opera just about irresistible despite its characters' solipsism, but that's not quite right. Stripped of all interests but the personal, the best soap opera whips kitchen-table gossip into genuine tragedy.

Near the start of The Doctor's House, Ann Beattie's chilling, unusually riveting new novel, Nina, a woman in her 40s, meets her older brother Andrew's girlfriend, Serena, for coffee. The relationship has rather deranged Serena, and like so many of Andrew's lovers, she turns to Nina for answers, for solace.

Her parting monologue brims with smart, soapy fury: "I'm going back to England to work in my family's business ... I didn't exactly get around to saying all I came here to say, but I don't want to take any more of your time. ... I enjoyed our friendship, even though it was just beginning. And the other thing - and then I'll go - is that I have to confess to at least one other person that I am the stupidest woman on the planet. I'm going from here to a clinic to have another abortion. You're going to die from shock, I'm so full of bad news. I'm sorry. It's unbelievable how stupid I was. But your brother, I have to tell you, is a monster."

The setting is plain old Cambridge, Mass., but the theatrics are pure-grade Days of Our Lives. You can't turn away from this book.

Stuck with a delusional alcoholic mother and a perverse sadist of a father, Nina and Andrew cling to each other through childhood. As adults, they understand each other the way no one else can. Their sibling bond burns as incandescently as any in literature.

Andrew is a rather hapless, infuriating monster, a dazed, good-looking guy who just happens to be a compulsive womanizer. He likes to undo a marriage "as if [it] was nothing but a ball of string," according to his sister. His latest project, affairs with girls he knew back in high school, 25 years past, drives the novel forward - and deep into the dysfunctional past.

Told in three long sections narrated by Nina (the best, most fearless narrator), her mother, and her brother, The Doctor's House, in summary, might seem like a parody of a decade's worth of dysfunction memoirs. Its climactic revelation is nearly as lurid as Prince of Tides - vintage Pat Conroy.

I'm a fan of camp, but this novel ain't campy; it's dead serious. It's an unqualified success, Beattie at her best. The orchestration of incident, the gradual revelation of emotional counterpoint, the throwaway zingers, and the pleasures of a soap opera - the perfect book to read if you've already devoured last year's sudsy masterpiece, The Corrections.

Ben Neihart's first novel was Hey, Joe. His second, Burning Girl, has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

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