The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

My second review for Karen and Simon’s #1976Club is The Doctor’s Wife, the Booker shortlisted novel by the Belfast-born writer Brian Moore. Set against the backdrop of Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s, this compelling narrative explores the tensions between personal freedoms and the restrictions imposed by marriage, particularly in a traditional society.

The novel’s focus is Sheila Redden, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who lives in Belfast with her surgeon husband, Kevin, and their fifteen-year-old son, Danny. Attractive and intelligent by nature, Sheila married young, sacrificing any personal aspirations for a life of marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Now, sixteen years after their wedding, Sheila has persuaded Kevin to return to Villefranche on the French Riviera for a second honeymoon, a chance perhaps to rekindle their relationship after years of stagnation.

When the pressures of the surgery cause a delay, Sheila sets off for France alone, hoping that Kevin will follow two or three days later, despite his apparent reluctance to travel. En route to the South of France, Sheila stops in Paris to stay the night with Peg, a friend from her student days, and it is here in the city that the stability of her marriage is derailed. When Sheila meets Tom Lowry – a carefree American graduate ten years her junior – the attraction between the two of them is instant and undeniable. To Sheila, Tom represents freedom, opportunity and the possibility of fulfilment – elements that have been sorely lacking in her life for the past several years.

She turned to him, seeing him toss his long dark hair, his eyes shining, his walk eager, as though he and she were hurrying off to some exciting rendezvous. And at once she was back in Paris in her student days, as though none of the intervening years had happened, those years of cooking meals, and buying Danny’s school clothes, being nice to Kevin’s mother, and having other doctors and their wives in for dinner parties, all that laundry list of events that had been her life since she married Kevin. (p. 27)

Before she knows it, Sheila is embroiled in a passionate affair, a relationship that deepens in intensity when firstly, Tom follows her to Villefranche and secondly, Kevin’s departure for France is further delayed. Naturally, Kevin eventually discovers what his wife has been up to, enlisting the help of her brother, Owen – another doctor – in his attempts to persuade his wife to return home.

As in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore demonstrates his ability to get into the minds of his characters – skilfully conveying their hopes and dreams, their failings and violations. With the exception of Tom – who feels rather lightly sketched compared to the other individuals in the novel – the characterisation is excellent, rich in detail and shading. Owen Deane is a particular case in point, a man caught between a sense of loyalty and duty of care towards his sister and the pressure being wielded by Kevin in his attempts to bring Sheila ‘to her senses’.

As the narrative plays out, Sheila must try to reconcile her marital commitments and responsibilities with the lure of freedom and fulfilment. Over the years, she has been ground down by Kevin, complete with his patriarchal attitude and petty jealousies – issues that bubble up now and again whenever another man shows an interest. It is no accident that Sheila is referred to as ‘Mrs Redden’ throughout the novel, a woman defined by her position in the marriage.

The novel also explores mental illness and how men sometimes try to use this excuse as leverage to control women, particularly those they consider to be wilful or wayward. The shadow of religion is another visible presence, adding to the complexities of the struggle between family loyalties and personal liberation. There is a lot going on in this subtle novel, even if I didn’t quite buy into Tom as a character and the speed with which he fell for Sheila Redden…

The Doctor’s Wife is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

45 thoughts on “The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be interested to see what you think of it. There’s a lot to like here, but one or two elements didn’t quite work for me, particularly around Tom’s character…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This only my second Moore, so it’s probably a little hard for me to judge. I do think he writes women very well and is sympathetic to their predicaments, but maybe happy endings are just not his thing? I’d be interested in other, more experienced Moore readers’ thoughts on this…

      Reply
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Interesting review, Jacqui, and although you praise the book I sense perhaps a slight ambivalence. Certainly, if the character of Tom doesn’t quite work that could undermine the narrative a little. I find myself wondering a little bit about Moore, particularly in light of the comment above, and also because of some responses I’ve read to Judith Hearne. Moore focuses on women characters, but does he actually like women?????

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re right in saying that I wasn’t 100% sold on it, Karen. Some elements of the book are excellent and entirely convincing, particularly all the Irish characters (including Peg, assuming she’s originally from Northern Ireland, too). For instance, I completely bought into Sheila as a character, her frustration with the husband, Kevin, and her attraction to the much younger, handsome, Tom. Kevin’s and Owen’s reactions to Sheila’s affair were also spot on. (My mother’s family are from Cork, and while there are differences in culture between the Northern Ireland and the south, Moore’s portrayal of the conservative Irish society felt utterly convincing to me.)

      Tom, however, was more problematic. I couldn’t quite buy into the intensity and depth of his feelings for Sheila, to the point where I began to question whether someone of his age would really be pressing a rather traditional 37yo woman to go and live with him in America, almost on a whim. Tom has his whole life ahead of him at this point, yet he’s ready to make a life-changing commitment to Sheila after knowing her for just a week! It’s an infatuation, of course, but the more I think about it, the less convincing I find it. Still, the plot hinges on Tom wanting to spend the rest of his life with Sheila, so the reader has to go with it for the remainder of the book to work. Plus, the sex scenes between Sheila and Tom felt rather heavy-handed. Again, I could see what Moore was aiming for here — to show us that Sheila is a real woman with strong, sexual desires and needs — but the scenes seemed unnecessarily explicit to me.

      So, lots to admire in the characterisation. Moore nails the maelstrom of emotions Kevin experiences on learning of Sheila’s affair – bafflement, denial, rage etc. Ditto the strained dynamics between Owen Deane (Sheila’s brother) and his interfering wife, whose name escapes me right now. But some significant caveats too…

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        Thanks Jacqui – I did sense a little hesitation at points. Of course, the book is presumably of its time so that has to be taken into account. The attraction of a younger man for an older woman might well be handled differently nowadays too, and I get your point that Moore is trying to show Sheila as a person in her own right with her own needs. Obviously an interesting book, despite its flaws!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Very welcome, Karen. I’m really glad you picked up on my hesitancy about the book as it gave me a chance to go into these points in more detail. One of the (many) things I struggle with in these blog posts is being critical about books, especially when the author is widely respected (as is the case here). After all, this is simply my view, not an all-encompassing critique. I too wondered how the age difference would be handled today – somewhat differently I suspect. The novel felt a bit dated in that respect (and in the heavy-handedness of the sex scenes).

          Reply
          1. kaggsysbookishramblings

            Yes, I know exactly what you mean about criticism – I don’t always agree with what others thing about books, and if they’re very popular you do feel a bit of an outlier criticising them. But we all read differently and so I do think this is valud. As for the sex scenes, I wonder if the prominence of these was to do with the era – post 1960s I sense it was felt that ‘anything goes’ and so you should lay it on with a trowel!

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes, maybe! Although in trying to highlight that it’s natural for any woman to have sexual needs and desires, irrespective of her marital status, I think he went too far. TMI, if you know what I mean!

              Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        So I finally put my thoughts on this down, my review will appear tomorrow. As you may be aware I was not a fan of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, so I entered into this with a high degree of distrust, although part way through I realised that 20 years have passed, because this felt quite different.

        I thought his portrayal of Sheila and her resistance to what was happening was well done, she initially rejected all the approaches, but at the same time she was kind of liberated in her social companionship with Peg and Ivo and Tom. She was in Paris without her husband and discovering what it felt like to be alone, and observing her overconfident friends, whose path had diverged so differently to her own.

        Though she is portrayed as middle-aged (and calls herself that) Sheila is only 37 and probably only starts feeling like that when she gets to the hot South. I thought it was interesting that Moore does to Tom, what many do to women characters. He objectified him, he made him into the character that is there for sexual pleasure and gratification. Not quite emasculated, but the mind and character we were interested in was Sheila’s. I did think the sex scenes were quite raunchy for a Booker Prize nomination, but that all depends on who is on the judging panel doesn’t it. Moore was playing everyone!

        I didn’t disbelieve Tom’s infatuation, it was short-sighted yes, but he was also of a different generation (not to mention culture) than Sheila, a more impetuous one. There were plenty of infatuations going on among those young who travelled in that era, no doubt Moore had heard quite a few interesting stories.

        I was surprised by the ending, not quite believing and then wanting to know more, it’s the one time I questioned what was going on, where I didn’t believe we really had access to Sheila’s true thoughts, or maybe he just wanted to add an element of mystery. Hmm.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Fascinating comments, Claire! That’s a really great point about the gender reversal with Moore’s objectification of Tom. I hadn’t quite thought if it in that sense before, but not that you’ve said it, I completely agree. As a character, he seems paper-thin, primarily there to be an object of desire to catalyst Sheila’s sexual reawakening after several mundane/unexciting years.

          ************Spoilers***************

          I too wondered about the ending (and why Sheila didn’t choose to go to America to live with Tom when she could have done so, having already made the decision to leave Kevin). As you say, we don’t get a lot of insight into Sheila’s motives for striking out on her own (for what looks to be quite an uncertain future). Maybe by this stage she’s realised that Tom was just an infatuation, and while she can’t envisage a long-term future with him, she cannot go back to her old life either? At one point, I wondered if Moore was punishing Sheila for the affair with Tom, condemning her to a solitary life of guilt and misery rather than the hope of happiness and fulfilment in America. But I don’t know if I’m being too harsh on Moore with that? I’ll be interested to see what you say in your review…

          Reply
          1. Claire 'Word by Word'

            The ending is the only place I questioned what Moore was doing and felt either he was holding back or she was acting out of character. I tend to agree that it felt like he/the patriarchy was punishing her, or seeking revenge, as if to say the path she chose would never liberate her. I like to think otherwise, that she found a way to be herself, to raise herself up from where she initially landed. I don’t focus too much on the ending in my review, it’s not easy to discuss without revealing.

            I do wonder how it was received when it came out though. And what the judges made of it.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes, the more I think about the ending, the more I’m inclined to see it as Moore punishing Sheila for her ‘sins’ and misdemeanours. The burden of religion is there in the novel, hanging over the Irish characters like a shadow or constant presence, so in some respects it could be seen as a natural extension of that thread. I’m also with you on wanting Sheila to find her feet once she gets settled in her new life. At 37, she still very young – plus she’s naturally bright and sensitive to others, which should stand her in good stead for getting a suitable job in the future.

              Reply
  2. Jane

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the habit of using mental illness (in fact any eccentricity will do) as leverage to control women, so I read your review with great interest (as always!) I’m not quite so sure now after reading your comments but I had better give it a read of my own – I haven’t read any Brian Moore yet.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Actually, to be fair, that aspect of the book was very effectively done! In other words, I found it entirely believable and true-to-life, albeit very saddening to contemplate…

      Reply
  3. 1streading

    The slight implausibility around Tom aside, this seems to be worth reading. I wonder how you would get on with Moore’s more ‘thriller’ type novels? Any plan to give one a try?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a very good suggestion, Grant! Yes. I do think I’d find his ‘thrillers’ / moral dilemmas quite interesting to try. Which one would you suggest? The only one I’m familiar with is The Lies of Silence, which Ali reviewed very positively earlier this year (IIRC).

      Reply
    2. Claire 'Word by Word'

      I actually found this to be quite thriller like, Sheila’s anxiety never really leaves her, there is a kind of pursuit of her, due to the dodgy but incriminating evidence her husband is trying to establish, and then there are the choices in front of her, right until the last minute, we don’t know what she will do.

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    The only Brian Moore I’ve read is ‘The Lonely Passion…’ and that kind of put me off exploring his work any further, but this one is actually quite appealing. Your description of the narrow emotional place Mrs. Redden is in with her husband and the use (by two doctors?) of labeling female behavior as mentally ill, makes it especially interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they’re both doctors, which adds a certain weight to that judgement…although to be fair, Sheila’s brother, Owen, is relatively sympathetic to his sister’s situation. They don’t try to get Sheila certified as mentally unstable or anything like that, but there’s definitely an element of ‘you’re not well/not feeling yourself’ about their treatment of her, which is typical of that patriarchal society.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    So interested to read your thoughts on this one, of the two books I read for the 1976 club, I this was my favourite. Moore takes a familiar story and does something a little different. The portrait of Owen Deane and his wife was also interesting I thought. I do see what you mean about Tom being a bit quick to fall so head over heals.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I had a feeling you would really like it, partly because Sheila is so well fleshed out as a character. And you’re right to home in on Owen Deane and his wife (whose name escapes me right now) – the dynamics between those two felt entirely believable and realistic. In fact, I could have quite happily read a whole novel focused on their relationship, maybe in the style of some of Maeve Brennan’s stories from The Springs of Affection!

      Reply
  6. Simon T

    Lovely, thoughtful review Jacqui – and I also thought your replies to Karen above were really interesting too. Tom did feel a bit like a fantasy character come true, but at least it’s refreshing that it’s a man playing that role in a novel, rather than the woman!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a very good point! Yes, it’s often the young, sexy woman who is cast as the fantasy figure in fiction, especially given the cultural context of the era. Anyway, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read this as part of the #1976Club, otherwise we wouldn’t be having such interesting discussions about a compelling yet moderately divisive book!

      Reply
  7. Cathy746books

    Lovely review Jacqui and I understand your reservations. Tom is an unconvincing character for me too and sometimes I felt that he was just there to move the plot forward and have Sheila question her life. I also found Sheila’s relationship with Danny to be flippant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’ve captured the nub of my reservations, Cathy. In essence, Tom’s a plot device, prompting Sheila to reflect on the type of life she has settled into (and what she could have achieved had things been different). Good point too about her abandonment of Danny – she barely gives him a thought in all of this…

      Reply
  8. Pingback: The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore for #BrianMoore100

  9. buriedinprint

    I feel as though I should have read more Brian Moore (given his Canadian connection) but he wasn’t a writer whose stories pulled me in, when I was reading through Canadian classics in my 20s, and I’ve only returned for Ginger Coffey since. His books were readily available here in the 70s and 80s, in massmarket paperbacks, from spinners and front-end caps with the beach reading. Hee hee But I just never “went there”. I mentioned in Ali’s post for this week, that I thought the writing of this book in particular might have been captured in one of Diana Athill’s memoirs (Stet, I believe?) but I’m not certain. Her relationship with him, as editor, did spark my interest briefly. And I do appreciate that he was pushing toward the idea of taking female characters seriously when that wasn’t very common, so that interests me too (even if, as you suggest, that doesn’t necessarily translate for readers today).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think he writes these troubled, unfulfilled women very well – both here and in Judith Hearne – although other aspects of this particular novel seem somewhat flawed or dated. I loved Judith Hearne and would have no hesitation in recommending that to you, should you whish to give him another try; but I completely understand that you have other reading projects on your horizon!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. madamebibilophile

    Great review Jacqui, and the discussion of the shortcomings was very interesting in terms of basic character/plot devices but also that it was of it’s time. I’ve only read one Moore that I didn’t really get on with but I’m interested to try him again. I have I Am Mary Dunne in the TBR.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you found the discussion useful. Yes, it does feel very much of its time. In some respects, it actually feels more ‘dated’ that some fiction from the 1950s and ’60s, which might sound a bit odd, but somehow that seems to have held up more successfully…

      Reply

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