A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett

October 27, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): A hundred and thirty years after it was first published, Sarah Orne Jewett’s story of a young medical woman remains an incisive rendering of the dilemmas of gender, society, and self. Nan Prince first becomes interested in medicine as a child, as the ward of the widowed physician Dr. Leslie. In time she becomes his protégée. But when she enters medical college, she realizes that she will have to choose between marriage and her career, between the demands of her society and her obligations to her true self. Inspired by Jewett’s own interests and by her father, A Country Doctor portrays a world very much in flux and Nan, ultimately, as a woman with a new world opening to her.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The opening descriptions of small-town life, where neighbors tell each other stories they’ve heard over and over before (yet never get tired of listening to the same thing) was great. Jewett did a wonderful job of setting the scene and showing just what kind of place Oldfieds was.
  • I liked Martin and Jacobe Dyer, and thought they were two of the more interesting characters in the book. Jewett spent so much time on them and their wives in the first couple of chapters that I figured they would play a big role in the story. Alas, they did not.
  • I’m glad Nan chose to become a doctor, despite the fact that it meant renouncing George Gerry and his marriage proposal. It would have been such a cop-out if Jewett had selected the more conventional path for her character.

Disliked:

  • Nan was supposed to be the main character, yet she remained distant and removed for most of the action. Until at least the midway point of the book (perhaps even more), Nan was just floating around in the background, a character that the other characters talked about, but who didn’t seem to participate in her own story. I thought this was a mistake on Jewett’s part. Nan should have been front and center from the beginning.
  • Too much time was spent on Nan’s childhood. As I just said, Nan wasn’t even an active participant in these episodes, which made hearing about her childish exploits extremely dull.
  • The refrain about “You can’t become a doctor; you’re a woman!” got a bit tiresome after a while. Yes, I fully realize that in 1884 when the book was first published, it was unheard of for women to aspire to even wear proper equestrian apparel let alone become a doctor rather than a wife or mother, but sill. A little subtlety would have gone a long way for Jewett here.

Rating:

Sarah Orne Jewett is supposed to have inspired a lot of early American writers, including the great Willa Cather, so I was anxious to read something by her. Unfortunately, A Country Doctor just didn’t do anything for me. It was slow and meandering, and featured a heroine that I simply couldn’t get behind or root for. As a result, I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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