The site of the multiple stories interwoven in this novel is a teaching hospital in San Francisco. One of the featured characters is a young single mother who comes in with a swollen arm and finds herself in more medical trouble than she anticipated. She suffers a mild stroke after debatable treatment. Two doctors attend her, but differ markedly in their ideas of how to treat her and their human responses to her. One ends up having a brief affair with her that changes his life.

In addition to these there are stories of a comatose young man and the family that refuses to believe he will not awaken (he does); a volunteer coordinator who observes the politics of hospital life from a privileged margin, and sundry staff people who represent alternative points of view. The single mother recovers, but only after a stay in the hospital has convinced her she may not yet be too old to go to medical school to find a life not in marrying a doctor, but in being one.


Although this novel has elements of soap opera in its parade of personal dramas and traumas, it is engagingly written and useful in its presentation of issues in medical ethics, hospital administration, patient care, and patients' rights. The point of view shifts from one chapter to the next, in a way that modifies each character's assumptions about medical norms by another's.

Though this technique sacrifices something in character development, it succeeds in representing hospitals as complex systems that both limit and enable significant healing. Implied critiques of various policies and practices are counterbalanced by an even-handed treatment of caregivers and patients who find and comfort one another in the midst of intrusive schedules, protocols, and procedures.


Johnson's writing has received two Pulitzer Prize nominations and a National Book Award nomination.



Place Published

New York



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