Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: The Mercy Rule, by Perri Klass

I was sent a copy of Perri Klass's novel The Mercy Rule by the publisher. I hadn't read her work before, but I had heard good things about her. I also was intrigued by the fact that Klass is a practicing physician as well as a novelist. I thought that would bring an interesting perspective to her work, and I was right.

The Mercy Rule is about a pediatrician, Lucy Weiss, who lives with her professor husband in a suburb of Boston, where she is busy working and raising two kids who attend private school and play weekend sports, and trying to find a balance between all these things. But, surprisingly, Lucy is also a child of the foster care system. Her mother died when she was small, and her father gave her over to be raised in the foster care system. Now, as a doctor, Lucy serves children like her, who are in the foster care system, or who are at risk for being put into that system.

The novel's narrative is split between Lucy's home life and her professional life. Part of the time Lucy is dealing with addicted or otherwise neglectful mothers and trying to assess the needs of their children, and part of the time she is struggling to raise her own two children. But the parts are tied together by the central theme of raising children, and how difficult it is under the best of circumstances.

As a mother of three, I really related to this novel. Lucy's demographic is in some ways similar to mine, and I laughed and cried over many of the poignant parenting moments in the book. It feels very authentic, almost like a memoir (though I know I'm making an inference here, as Klass is a physician, and clearly a parent, as well as a writer, and the main character is also a physician and parent who writes, at least as a hobby), and its genuine quality was part of what made it involving.

I recognized so many of the parenting challenges that Klass details in the book. Lucy has two difficult children, a girl going from tween to adolescent, and a 7-year-old boy who is eccentric, to put it kindly. Klass wisely resists "diagnosing" or labeling the kids, but they definitely have some issues. And, like Lucy, we all face bewildering issues as parents, even if they aren't exactly the same as the ones Lucy faces, and we all wish we could smooth the way for our children and help them navigate every awkward social situation, even though we know we shouldn't.

While I enjoyed the parts about Lucy's family life, I was also completely drawn into the parts about Lucy's professional life. The interaction between Lucy and the families of her patients was fascinating, and I would have liked to see even more of this. My problem with the book was that it lacked a clear story. Yes, many things happen, but there is no arc to the story--it's made up of a series of episodes, but it doesn't quite have a cohesive plot. However, since I found the episodes compelling, the lack of plot wasn't a major problem for me--it's more just an observation about the style, and a warning for those who don't like books that aren't story-driven.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how involving I found this warts-and-all look at parenting, and how much I related to its main character, a modern woman trying to balance work and family, and sometimes just barely hanging on to both.


litlove said...

Oh this sounds marvellous and just the kind of book I should be reading for my motherhood project. I'll be looking out for it over here in the UK!

Lisa said...

I like books that deal with the choices made by women regarding careers and family. This one does sound quite good. For me, plot is really not all that important as long as the book is well-written and the characters are complex and realistically drawn.

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--I do think this book might be useful to you for your motherhood project. Klass's exploration of parenting is really subtle and I particularly enjoyed the stuff about dealing with a socially awkward kid.

lisa--I really enjoyed this because the characters were good, and the themes were so interesting to me!

susan said...

I have this book on my bedside table. I was sent this by the author. It will be very interested to see how she writes as the prespective of a Pediatrician. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the book.
I have you listed on my book blog would you add me to yours.

Bookfool said...

I can never figure out how those doctors manage to fit in writing a book and raising a family when I can barely fit in housework, blogging and reading with the kid stuff. The book sounds terrific but I think I'd have a little trouble with the lack of plot. Still . . . might just have to flip through a copy. You made it sound awfully interesting!

Anna said...

Sounds like I might be able to relate to this book as well. I'll have to check it out. Great review!

Matt said...

Wow this book seems to be totally up my alley! I'll have to hunt it down for my vacation reading.

Robin said...

This sounds like a very interesting book. I remember reading this review when you first posted it, but I had to come back here and reread it since I just finished reading her book on knitting! I liked her so much! I'm definitely putting this one on my TBR list.