About the Book
It is 1865, the American Civil War has just ended, and 18-year old Vita Tenney is determined to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a country doctor like her father. But when her father tells her she must get married instead, Vita explores every means of escape – and finds one in the person of war veteran Jacob Culhane.
Damaged by what he’s seen in battle and with all his family gone, Jacob is seeking investors for a fledgling business. Then he meets Vita – and together they hatch a plan that should satisfy both their desires. Months later, Vita seemingly has everything she ever wanted. But alone in a big city and haunted by the mistakes of her past, she wonders if the life she always thought she wanted was too good to be true. When love starts to compete with ambition, what will come out on top?
Format: Hardback (480 pages) Publisher: Zaffre
Publication date: 3rd March 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction
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I was first introduced to Martha Conway’s writing when I read The Floating Theatre back in 2017. There are echoes of the theme of that book, a young woman having to make her own way in the world, in The Physician’s Daughter. A neat touch is the inclusion at the beginning of each chapter of quotations from books and periodicals dating from the period. Some of these are laugh out loud funny for their outrageously outdated views on the role of women and the ‘trials’ of marriage.
I confess I found the book very slow to begin within. For me the most compelling part was Jacob’s story. I felt his experiences during the Civil War and its aftermath allowed the author to explore the impact of war not just on the individuals involved but on their loved ones. For Jacob, the memories of what he saw and endured as a prisoner of war have taken a heavy psychological and emotional toll. ‘He woke up shaking and sweating, his heart thundering in his chest.’ (I’ll confess the existence of the Confederate prison of war camp at Andersonville and the atrocities that went on there was new to me.) Although the project he and his friend, killed during the war, planned to pursue together provides him with a degree of focus, he is resigned to leading a rather solitary life… until he meets Vita.
I admired Vita’s determination to follow her dream in spite of the opposition of her father and the limitations placed on women’s independence by society. The spiteful remarks of her sister, Amelia, don’t help either. At times I became frustrated that Vita was so easily swayed by the comments of others, often just snatches of overheard conversations. Having arrived at an arrangement that might offer the freedom she seeks, her misinterpretation of a chance remark results in her making a series of rash decisions. There were a number of occasions where I wanted to say ‘Vita, don’t do that!’ or ‘You’ve got it all wrong’.
Vita’s family has also been affected by the war. Her father is consumed by thoughts of what might have been and, ironically, Vita’s ambition to become a doctor, following in his own footsteps, only makes his anguish worse. Meanwhile Vita’s mother seeks other ways to dull the pain of loss whilst being more supportive of Vita’s desire to make something more of her life than just marriage and motherhood.
Vita definitely grows as a character as the book progresses. In particular, she is very open to acknowledging her strengths and weaknesses, recognising that there is more to being a doctor than memorising conditions and medication; listening – really listening – to your patients is important too. This really comes home to her in some dramatic scenes towards the end of the book.
The outcome I’d hoped for eventually does come about and the book concludes on a hopeful note. I was left with the sense that although Vita’s pursuit of her ambition is going to be an uphill task with the right support she will get there.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Zaffre via NetGalley.
In three words: Engaging, well-researched, detailed
Try something similar: The Unquiet Heart by Kaite Welsh
About the Author
Martha Conway is the author of several novels including The Underground River, which was a New York Times Book Editor’s Choice (entitled The Floating Theatre in the U.K.). Her novel Thieving Forest won the North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction.
Born in Ohio and one of seven sisters, she now makes her home in California.