Pop Lit

Anatomy, morality, fidelity

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane White
February 10, 2008

The Anatomy of Deception
By Lawrence Goldstone
Delacorte, 352 pp., $24

The Secret Between Us
By Barbara Delinsky
Doubleday, 343 pp., $25.95

A Version of the Truth
By Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack
Delacorte, 336 pp., $24

The Adultery Club
By Tess Stimson
Bantam, 400 pp., paperback, $12

"Pop Lit" this month ranges all over the place, from an intensively researched novel about medicine to a detailed story of sex and infidelity.

Lawrence Goldstone's second novel, "The Anatomy of Deception," is set in Philadelphia in 1889, at a critical point in American medicine, the dawn of modern surgery. Subtitled "A Novel of Suspense," it has elements of a historical novel, a medical thriller, and a mystery but doesn't strictly conform to any genre. Goldstone's research informs every page. He weaves history, atmosphere, medical procedures, and forensic details into a fascinating story, incorporating historical figures into the plot: Dr. William Osler, known as the father of modern medicine; pioneering surgeon Dr. William Stewart Halsted, inventor of surgical gloves and campaigner for sanitary conditions in hospitals; and the eccentric American realist painter Thomas Eakins. Dr. Ephraim Carroll has come to Philadelphia to study under Osler, who insists that his young physician students leave the classroom to observe, examine, talk with, and listen to patients. It was a revolutionary idea at the time. Osler also instructs his students by having them assist at autopsies, then extremely controversial procedures. In the hospital's morgue, Ephraim and one of his fellow students catch a glimpse of the corpse of a beautiful young woman. Her identity and the manner in which she died are central to the story, which moves convincingly through all levels of late-19th-century Philadelphia society, from the Rittenhouse Square mansions of the wealthy hospital trustees to the dangerous waterfront district.

Barbara Delinsky can be counted on to deliver straightforwardly written, insightful stories about family relationships. Her new novel, "The Secret Between Us," is one of her best. Physician Deborah Monroe and her teenage daughter, Grace, are driving home one rainy night when their car hits a man, leaving him unconscious but breathing. Grace, driving on her learner's permit, is behind the wheel. Her mother orders her to leave the scene, to run the short distance to their house while she waits for the police. The police in her Boston suburb know Deborah. She allows them to think she was driving, convincing herself that she's not lying, merely failing to correct their assumption. Her decision to take the blame to protect her daughter changes her life, and the lives of those around her. The lie ripples outward in a widening circle, altering everything it touches, revealing deceptions and self-deceptions Deborah's family has lived with for years. Deborah had a lot to deal with before the accident. Her demanding father, with whom she practices medicine, is drinking too much. Her younger sister is pregnant and unmarried. Her 10-year-old son, Dylan, is losing his eyesight. Her mother's untimely death haunts her. The failure of her marriage still rankles. Deborah is one of those people who think they have to do everything for everybody, but this burden may be one too many. Delinsky is a first-rate storyteller who creates believable, sympathetic characters who seem as familiar as your neighbors.

Reading "A Version of the Truth," by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, I diligently reminded myself not to think about their first novel, the wonderful "Literacy and Longing in L.A." It's unfair to compare the two books, but many readers will. "A Version of the Truth" is a formulaic love story, but it has charms of its own, including an offbeat main character and some lovely writing about nature and animals. Cassie Shaw, the dyslexic narrator, is a painfully insecure 30-year-old high school dropout, recently widowed. She's broke and unemployed, and maybe unemployable. She prefers the company of animals to people. The only job she ever held involved working with her mother at the Topanga Wildlife Center, near their home in Topanga Canyon, outside Los Angeles. Rejected by employment agencies, Cassie decides to lie about her schooling and invents a degree from the University of Michigan. The lie lands her an entry-level job at a university, working for Professor William Conner, an expert on animal behavior. Cassie's horizons widen; she audits college courses and discovers that she can learn. Her attraction to William grows. But one lie leads to another, and another, and Cassie must come clean or give up her chance at a happy ending.

I'm not going to let the fact that it's February stop me from describing Tess Stimson's "The Adultery Club" as perfect beach reading. It may be titillating trash, but it's well-written titillating trash, engaging, amusing, sexy, and surprisingly thought-provoking. There's nothing original in the approach; the difference is in the details. Stimson adroitly leads the reader into the intimate lives of a man, his wife, and his girlfriend. Nicholas is a successful London divorce lawyer, a man who loves his wife and three small daughters. His wife, Malinche, is smart, a wonderful mother, a successful author of cookbooks. Sara is a sexually adventurous young lawyer who sets out to seduce Nicholas and succeeds. A few lines on the book's cover pose a question: "A wife. A husband. A mistress. Whose side will you be on?" This novel was deliberately crafted to inspire discussion and debate, and it will.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

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