Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese

Like everyone else, I read Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone a couple of years ago when it was the hottest thing since sliced bread. So when I saw the author had another book (two in fact) and they were memoirs, I of course wanted to read them. The Tennis Partner is his second memoir (I guess I'm reading his books in reverse.)

Abraham has just moved to El Paso, Texas, where he stands out like a sore thumb, an Indian raised in Africa. He is a doctor at the teaching hospital which he loves, he has two little boys that he adores, and his wife wants a divorce. He is new to town, has few friends, feels unmoored, and is grateful when he meets David, an older medical student (therefore nearly Abraham's age) who he can play tennis with. David had briefly been a professional tennis player, a fact which awes Abe, as that was his childhood dream. But soon his bubble is burst when he discovers why David is a few years behind his peers: he has just returned from a forced hiatus from school, during which time he went to an extended in-patient rehab program and then completed one year of sober living, due to his cocaine addiction.

When Abe learns this he is concerned and worried for his friend, but David seems on the right track. He is complying with all the requirements for his return, mostly cheerfully, he seems accepting of his situation, understanding of his addiction, and dedicated to medicine. His friendship is a crucial bit of normalcy in Abe's life, which has become quite discombobulated. Abe helps David get on a research project, and eventually pulls some strings to get David a residency in his department. But David is not doing as well as Abe had thought. And things start to go downhill, quickly.

It was fascinating to read an addiction memoir that isn't from the addict's point of view (Let's Take the Long Way Home doesn't count because even though it is written by the friend of Caroline, the author herself is also an addict, plus Caroline stopped drinking before the book began.) Abe doesn't know any more about addiction that I do, and he's a doctor. He is alternately hopeful and scared, angry and hurt, wanting to help but afraid of being an enabler. Addiction isn't any easier on Abe or David, just because they're in the medical field.

In fact, addicts in medicine are a particularly tough bunch to treat. They have incredible access to drugs (most doctor addicts are anesthesiologists), are unwilling to admit anything is wrong, and need to keep their patients' trust. It's an important topic rarely discussed, although it is briefly touched on in Atul Gawane's Complications.

But I digress. In The Tennis Partner, initially it is David who is helping Abe to settle in, have a friend, feel normal despite the chaos of divorce. At the end it is David who desperately needs help from Abe. I'll admit I got choked up at the end. Things do go very wrong, but not exactly in the way I expected.

Dr. Verghese is very good at explaining medical terms for lay people, and even better at explaining his passion for people, and his fascination with puzzling out tricky diagnoses. The tennis terminology is more likely to throw off lay people, and the tennis names are very dated (the book was published in 1999 but takes place in the early 90s, and he often talks of tennis greats from his childhood, in the 70s.) But you really don't need to understand that in order to fully appreciate the book. It is a tragic story, and a powerful one. Even doctors don't have the answers when it comes to addiction.

I got this book at the Friends of the Library sale.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Not "all" of us have read Cutting for Stone yet! :) (Actually, I have it slated up next in my reading pile!) ... of course, when I saw that this was a review of another book by him, I was interested. I generally don't do a lot of memoirs, but this one definitely sounds interesting enough for me to pick up and read. Thanks for the review!