Saturday, July 25, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: A Dublin Student Doctor by Patrick Taylor

Patrick Taylor’s novels about general practitioners in a fictional small town in Ireland set around the 1960s caught my attention several years back. I started reading my way through them, but stalled 2 ½ years ago with An Irish Country Courtship. Because I’m looking for some “comfort reads,” and because my local library has partially reopened with curbside service, I decided to move on to book six, A Dublin Student Doctor.

This novel jumps back in time to the 1930s to show Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly’s medical school days in Dublin and his introduction to the woman he is re-courting in the 1960s, Kitty O’Hallorhan. It uses a somewhat clunky framing device to get us from “current day” into O’Reilly’s memory. O’Reilly and his young partner, Dr. Laverty, are on their way home from an outing when they come across a bicycle vs. car accident. The victim is one of O’Reilly’s friends/patients, Donal Donnelly. He has a bad head injury. An ambulance is on the way, so O’Reilly arranges to accompany Donal to the hospital in Dublin, a few hours away. There, he will be operated upon by an old classmate of O’Reilly’s, who is now a brain surgeon. O’Reilly spends the night in the old student quarters and reminisces about his student days.

O’Reilly knew, from the age of thirteen, that he wanted to be a doctor. He had obstacles to overcome, the first being his father’s adamant disapproval. But O’Reilly stuck to his guns, paying his own way. Family dynamics are one plot arc.

There are two other main arcs. One is O’Reilly’s love life. Early on, he meets Kitty, a student nurse. They start spending time together, but only very little time as they are both busy. O’Reilly is hesitant to commit to the relationship because of the demands of medical school. Too hesitant.

The final arc is his progress through medical school. He has the support of a “study group” which includes the future brain surgeon. They are a tight-knit group, with varying degrees of dedication to their studies. The work is difficult but fascinating. In addition to the studying, O’Reilly has to overcome his natural empathy for the patients without becoming hardened to their suffering.

It’s an interesting look into the life and times of medical students in Dublin in the 1930s. There are vaguely ominous political rumblings in the background. The author takes pains to describe the medical evaluations and surgical procedures O’Reilly would have been exposed to. Some of it has an info-dumpy feel to it, but it does make the setting seem realistic. Also realistic was the hard drinking for relaxation and the sexist outlook of the group of men. There was a female medical student rotating with them, and they accepted her as a colleague, but there was never a thought of including her outside of the wards. They had to work in pairs and she was left to partner with Fitzpatrick, an obsequious, annoying student who sucked up to the attendings and threw a wet blanket on all their fun. She was really a non-character, but at least there was a female medical student.

Taylor’s novels are comforting reads. The characters are good-hearted. The conflicts are middle-of-the-road. Most are resolved happily and those that aren’t are poignant rather than tragic. There are several more in this series and I’m sure I’ll return to it again.