Body of Work is a cleverly crafted memoir - or, rather, the first chapter of a memoir - of the author's medical school experience at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island. Ms Montross relates the chronological course of her team's dissection of a female cadaver with no discernible umbilicus and whom they therefore name Eve. (She neglects to comment on Eve's ribs and whether she has the normal complement or a supernumerary, more masculine, rib.) As she and her team of four (later three as one student drops out of school) proceed with the orderly dismantling of Eve, bone by bone, nerve by nerve and blood vessel by blood vessel, she uses this experience as a springboard to analyze her and her team's emotional reactions to the often unnatural process of deconstructing, literally (at times with a saw), a former person now cadaver, as well as the gradual, almost imperceptible acculturation that transmogrifies medical students into doctors. In fact, she devotes the final pages to this metamorphosis and what it means to the person undergoing the transition from caring student to detached physician, and whether one can retain enough caring, while remaining sufficiently detached to function as one must as a clinician, to become both a whole person and competent physician: "How much of becoming a doctor demands releasing the well-known and well-loved parts of my self?" (page 209)

Although it primarily revolves about the axis of her gross anatomy (cadaver dissection) course, the author's narrative includes tangents that have variably relevant relationships to this course, e.g., a trip to Italy to inspect first hand the anatomy theater of Vesalius in Padua and the Basilica of St. Anthony; another trip to the anatomical wax sculptures museum in Bologna, where the author also observes the "incorrupt corpse of Santa Caterina" in a "small church called Corpus Domini" (pages 223-224); interspersed histories of the traffic of corpses for dissection, including the infamous Burke and Hare story; some flash-forwards to her second and third years; and a prolonged narration of the final illnesses of her grandmother and grandfather. This last bit of family history is worth the price of the book alone. Despite the apparently incongruous collection of such asides, the author makes it work smoothly, if not seamlessly.


Frankly, I had my doubts - having read more than my share of first person narratives about becoming a physician and one's reflections thereupon, from Thomas Browne to Wilder Graves Penfield to Arthur E. Hertzler to William A. Nolen to William Carlos Williams to Richard Selzer to Mel Konner to, most recently, Pauline W. Chen - whether I wanted to read yet another one. Make no mistake about it: Body of Work is a narrative of the medical student's rite of passage far better written than most (although not including all the aforementioned authors, some of whom have furnished laudatory blurbs for the author on the book jacket), by a sensitive woman who describes herself prior to medical school as "at various times a poet, a university writing instructor, a high-school English teacher to a group of troubled kids." (page 3)

Although her editors occasionally fall asleep at the switch with split infinitives pullulating on almost every page and awkward, inelegant phrases occurring far more commonly than one would expect, Ms Montross is a wonderful stylist: towards the end of the book when there is not much left to Eve, the author writes, "we knew her when she was whole." (page 168) "The fallopian tubes are obvious, and the tiny fimbria look like a baseball mitt ready to catch the perfectly aimed ovum." (page 230) Watching a patient with advanced ALS take what seem to be his last breaths: "I wish the scattered, fractured breaths would cease, because we all know that they will." (page 244)

This book is and will remain a classic. It is sensitive, erudite, scholarly, and meticulously assembled; in fact, it gathers structure and coherence the more Eve disintegrates before our eyes. Some may find the introspection excessive, particularly towards the end of the course,which is the end of the book. Such is the tension of a micro-analysis. Such is the risk of writing and reading a phenomenology of self-change. Since Ms Montross often wonders about the real Eve and wishes she did know more, this book would make an interesting companion to Marshall Goldberg's The Anatomy Lesson, reviewed in this database.


The author is currently a resident in psychiatry at Brown University.


The Penguin Press

Place Published

New York



Page Count