The Heart Specialist

Written by Claire Holden Rothman
Review by James Hawking

Agnes White, a character based on one of Canada’s first female doctors, is determined to follow in the footsteps of the father, a doctor who had deserted his family under a cloud when Agnes was five years old. Her Anglophone grandmother changes her French name Bourret to White and discourages her use of her absent father’s equipment to experiment with dead squirrels, but Agnes stubbornly overcomes obstacles to finish medical school and become a pioneer female doctor. Most of the male physicians oppose her efforts, and even those who purportedly support her treat her as an inferior.

Agnes is sidetracked into a career as something like a medical museum curator, but this gives her an opportunity to conduct the research that eventually makes her a distinguished heart specialist. There is some use of Keats’s poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” and the legend that a virgin will see her eventual husband on January 20, but what is refreshing is that this is a heroine for whom love is not a primary interest, at least not until she has achieved her professional goals.

Most of the actions are set in Montreal before and after World War I, but the main emphasis is not on historical events. When the author does attempt to introduce history, there are clumsy mistakes, such as misdating the French recapture of Calais by thirty years and the presumably unintentional anachronism of having a character reading Le Monde long before that newspaper was established, near the end of World War II.