The Tennis Partner
- Aull, Felice
- Date of entry: Nov-25-1998
- Last revised: Jan-20-2010
A Doctor's Story of Friendship and Loss, this book is, in a sense, a sequel to Verghese's earlier memoir, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS (see this database). The Tennis Partner tells the parallel stories of Verghese's disintegrating marriage as he establishes new roots in El Paso, Texas and of his new deep friendship with a (male) medical student who shares his passion for tennis. Both men are struggling to re-establish order in their personal lives: Verghese, in easing himself out of a dying marriage while trying to maintain a close relationship with his two sons; David (the tennis partner), in remaining drug-free and successfully completing medical training, which had been interrupted by his addiction.
Verghese, an experienced physician trained in infectious disease and an expert on AIDS treatment, relishes his role as David's mentor; David, a former tennis "pro," enjoys teaching Verghese how to play better. Playing tennis together for the sheer joy of it, each finds release. Tennis becomes the route through which each can unburden himself to the other, seeking solace in a difficult time. Through it "we found a third arena outside of the defined boundaries of hospital and tennis court . . . at a time in both our lives when friendship was an important way to reclaim that which had been lost." (339)
While the reader suspects that David must have a drug problem because the Prologue to the book, narrated in the third person, describes a "young doctor from El Paso" in drug treatment, Verghese the biographer has no inkling of the problem until one-third into his first person narrative. He is shocked, but in some ways the bonds of their friendship are strengthened. Each has only the other as a confidant.
David, however, has another addiction: women. The friendship becomes increasingly complicated as Verghese tries to remain both supportive and objective. Eventually David resumes "using" and Verghese must decide how to respond, both professionally and on a personal level. The turmoil in both lives ends tragically for David and causes profound grief in Verghese.
This is a well-written, absorbing, and moving memoir. The author is unusually open in describing his own vulnerability and idiosyncracies. It is as if he were determined to break out of the professional tradition that he criticizes: "The doctor's world is one where our own feelings--particularly those of pain, and hurt--are not easily expressed, even though patients are encouraged to express them. We trust our colleagues, we show propriety and reciprocity, we have the scientific knowledge, we learn empathy, but we rarely expose our own emotions." (341)
The story of David illustrates how frustrating and often hopeless it is to try to rehabilitate the addicted, and particularly, how far we are from understanding the causes or successful treatment of addiction. At the same time, important questions of professionalism, medical and personal ethics, and the blurring of personal and professional boundaries are explored.
While those readers who are not interested in tennis may find the many detailed descriptions of the game somewhat tedious, the book is rich in interesting observations on the natural and cultural history of El Paso, sympathetic descriptions of the down-and-out patients encountered, medical training, medical lore, and family life. Verghese's love of and respect for humanity and his profession are everywhere in evidence.