Thursday, November 17, 2011


This blog hop is hosted by Kathy at I am a reader not a writer.

Title: The Doctor and the Diva
Author: Adrienne McDonnell
Publisher: Pamela Doman Books (Penguin)
Pages: 432
A breathtaking novel of romantic obsession, longing and one woman's choice between motherhood and her operatic calling 

It is 1903. Dr. Ravell is a young Harvard-educated obstetrician with a growing reputation for helping couples conceive. He has treated women from all walks of Boston society, but when Ravell meets Erika-an opera singer whose beauty is surpassed only by her spellbinding voice-he knows their doctor-patient relationship will be like none he has ever had. 

After struggling for years to become pregnant, Erika believes there is no hope. Her mind is made up: she will leave her prominent Bostonian husband to pursue her career in Italy, a plan both unconventional and risky. But becoming Ravell's patient will change her life in ways she never could have imagined. 

Lush and stunningly realized, The Doctor and the Diva moves from snowy Boston to the jungles of Trinidad to the gilded balconies of Florence. This magnificent debut is a tale of passionate love affairs, dangerous decisions, and a woman's irreconcilable desires as she is forced to choose between the child she has always longed for and the opera career she cannot live without. Inspired by the author's family history, the novel is sensual, sexy, and heart- stopping in its bittersweet beauty.


The story begins in 1903, in Boston.  A young, Harvard-educated obstetrician who is a rising star in his profession becomes dangerously attracted to a patient—a lovely opera singer.  She turns to the doctor for help in conceiving a child.  The doctor becomes so drawn to her that he takes a great moral risk—a secret he can share with no one.

The novel is based on ancestors, and hundreds of pages of family letters.  Who were those ancestors?

The married couple in the novel, Erika von Kessler and her husband Peter, were inspired by my son’s paternal ancestors—his great-great grandparents.  They lived in Boston at the beginning of the twentieth century, and they were an extraordinary pair.  Even by modern standards, they dared to live in bold, highly adventurous ways. 

What moved you to write about them?

I can remember the moment I first heard about the great-great grandmother, the woman whom I call “Erika” in the novel.  I was nineteen years old, living in Santa Barbara.  A friend had gone away for the weekend, and she’d loaned me her beachfront apartment.  It was around midnight, and I was lying there in the arms of a young man I barely knew.  He later became my husband, but at that moment we were just beginning to know one another.  He talked about his grandfather, who had recently died.  Suddenly he said, “When my grandfather was a little boy, his mother deserted him and her husband and moved to Italy to develop her career as an opera singer.
The idea of a privileged woman in early twentieth century Boston who abandoned her husband and small child for the sake of her art … the thought of it amazed me.  Then I couldn’t decide: did I admire her and want to applaud her courage?  Or was it heartbreaking that she’d deserted her little boy?  The tension of all those conflicting feelings drew my imagination to her. 

How did you manage to learn more about her life? 

Early in our marriage, my husband and I moved to Boston.  Every day on my way to work, I walked through the Back Bay neighborhood where these ancestors had once lived.  Erika’s childhood home stood on Commonwealth Avenue.   Her father was a famous physician, and they lived in a rather grand house with two archways. 
When I went up to the front entrance and cupped my hands against the glass pane to peer inside, I saw that much remained the same as it had been in the late nineteenth century.  The wide staircase was still paneled in black walnut, and I imagined her fiancĂ© Peter mounting the steps, and her voice echoing down to him while she sang from the parlor upstairs.

Why did their story seem so haunting to you?

When I stood across the street from “Erika’s” house, I could almost see a young girl’s face—her face—staring back at me from an oval window on the third story.  I had a strange sense of god-like omniscience, because I knew things about her life that she couldn’t foresee—how her husband would one day be forced to divorce her and take custody of their small son; how she would sing in I Puritani from Montepulciano, Italy; how her little boy would write her letters that were never delivered to her. 

What about her husband?  How was he unusual?

Her husband was a fascinating person as well.  He was British, a highly successful international businessman – an importer of Egyptian cotton, among other things.  “Peter” was a man of voracious curiosity, a naturalist, a lover of flora and fauna.  He imported the first chimpanzees to the London Zoo, where he later became a Director.  He traveled across four continents, and ventured into remote places, keen on seeing and experiencing everything.  And he wrote prolific, richly detailed letters.  

He was the sort of man who’d ride a camel through the Egyptian desert to visit a tribe of Bishareen nomads, where he’d move from tent to tent, tasting their dried bread and goat’s milk.

Or he’d head to a friend’s lush Caribbean coconut plantation, where they’d ride at midnight in a buggy along a beach, with vampire bats flying overhead….  He’d slash a path through a rainforest with his machete, or he’d travel upriver in South America toward a waterfall that few Europeans had ever seen.

A third character in the novelthe fertility doctor Erika and Peter consultbecomes a crucial figure in their lives.  Many readers may be surprised to learn that fertility specialists existed in 1903.  Were their treatments effective?

Certain procedures that many people might regard as “modern”—such as artificial insemination—were actually being practiced more than a century ago, but doctors had to conduct such work surreptitiously.  They risked grave moral condemnation.

THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA takes place at a real turning point in medical history.  Prior to that era, if a couple were unable to have children, the fault was always placed on the woman.  The problem was always thought to be due to a “barren” wife.  In the latter half of the 19th century, physicians began to discover a startling truth: a man could be virilehe could be sexually potentand yet he might also be infertile.

What led to that discovery? 

As far back as 1677, a man in Holland named Leeuwenhoek looked through a microscope and saw sperm.  By the mid-nineteenth century, physicians had begun to study human sperm with real scientific scrutiny.  An American physician named Dr. Sims became known as “the father of modern gynecology.”  Dr. Sims would follow married couples into their homes.  He’d wait behind a bedroom wall while a couple had intercourse, and then he’d rush in and probe and take measure of things under the microscope.  He invented an instrument known as the “impregnating syringe.” 

During the Victorian era, how was he allowed to do that kind of research? 

Dr. Sims shocked and appalled many people. But the majority of patients who filled gynecologists’ consulting rooms during the nineteenth century came there because of infertility.  Some were so desperate to conceive a child that they were motivated and willing to cooperate.

There’s some statistical evidence that infertility was more prevalent during the nineteenth century than it is today.  One cause was gonorrhea, which was epidemic and incurable then.  During the 1870s, there was one rather sad and touching case that convinced a professor of obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania that husbands—as well as wives—were part of the equation.  A female patient came to him, begging for an operation to help her conceive.  While the doctor was trying to decide if he ought to perform the procedure, the woman’s husband presented himself, feeling very guilty about all his wife’s anguish and distress.  He told the doctor that he believed his gonorrhea—from which he’d been suffering for many years—must be the root cause.  So, after an examination of the husband’s semen under the microscope, it became evident that the man was sterile.  This proved a revelation for the professor of obstetrics.  Afterward, he told his colleagues: I beg of you, be sure to examine the husband, as well as the wife.

A century ago when doctors performed artificial insemination, did they use a husband’s sperm, or a donor’s?

At first, during the mid-nineteenth century, they relied on the husband’s sperm.  But by the 1880s and 1890s, certain gynecologists did begin to use donor sperm—although they rarely revealed what they’d done until decades later.

Older women in the family shared their memories with you, and rumors they’d overheard.  What else did they say about the real Erika?

One elderly cousin, born in England in 1898, came to visit the U.S.  As a child, she’d heard a lot of whispering about her American aunt.  She’d heard that “Erika” had a baby daughter fathered by a man who was not her husband….  She’d heard that long after Erika had deserted her son, she’d appeared one day, unannounced, at her son’s boarding school.          

The novel draws upon hundreds of pages of family letters.  Where did you find those letters?

After my husband and I had lived in Boston for nine years, we decided to move back to the West Coast.  We drove cross-country and stopped at his aunt’s ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  Like me, she had a passion for genealogy.  From the moment you stepped into her house, you felt the presence of the ancestors….  Huge family portraits stared down at you from her living room walls.  She had a little gallery of framed butterflies -- a dozen exquisite butterflies that her grandfather “Peter” had meticulously painted with hair-thin brushes. 

“Where are the letters I’ve heard so much about?”  I asked her.  The aunt brought out hundreds of pages of correspondence.  Reading them just amazed me.  I realized that these ancestors had led far bigger lives than I’d imagined.  Their voices could be heard in those pages.  There was so much detail and adventure—nights spent exploring winding streets in Tangier, or visits to a coconut plantation in the Caribbean where the guests told ghost stories after dinner…. 

If Erika were alive today, do you think her career vs. motherhood conflicts would be any different?

Her guilt and anguish would probably be very similar to that described in the novel.  But I think that today, the courts and society would have allowed her more flexibility with respect to staying in contact with her child.  In those times, transatlantic airplane travel wasn’t an option.  She couldn’t fly back and forth to visit her son for a few days.  In that era, if a mother moved across an ocean and settled in another country, that was it —she was gone.  And from a legal standpoint, she surrendered her rights to custody.

It’s interesting to think about her husband “Peter” and his mode of parenting.  In real life, “Peter” was often an ocean and a continent away from his young son, and he did a lot of his parenting by letter.  At the age of seven, the boy was placed in boarding school, and during vacations, his father arranged for him to live with a family like the “Talcotts” (as described in the novel).  The boy was basically “mothered” by a colleague’s wife. But despite his father’s long absences, the real-life Quentin always regarded his father as a towering, loving figure—and as an extraordinary man.

And long after Erika’s death in 1918, her son remembered his mother with a certain pride and respect.  His daughters told me that as they were growing up, “Quentin” always kept a framed photograph of his mother on top the Steinway pianoa picture of Erika dressed in her operatic regalia. 

Intrigued? Want your own copy?
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KimS. said...

Thanks for the great giveaway! (:

kimyunalesca said...

I always thought Boston's got this rich history going on even way back this story is mind opening,I like the setting very interesting Thank you so much for sharing these amazing facts.


Sophia Rose said...

Thanks for the giveaway opportunity and for the fascinating interview about the book.

Amy said...

Thank you for this wonderful giveaway. This book sounds absorbing and riveting!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Laurie Carlson said...

WoW! What an AWESOME INTERVIEW!!! Thank YOU!!! What an amazing story!! Wow!!!! I am going to put this on my TBR pile!!! Wow!!! The author's interview made the book that much MORE INTERESTING!!! THANK YOU FOR IT!!!! Amazing!!!! Wow!!!!
I really HOPE I WIN!!! I would gobble this book up! (Ha! I just made a turkey joke without even thinking it's Thanksgiving!! LOL!)
The thought of infertility 'back then', amazing!!! And gonorhea!! ow!! I have NO clue how to spell it! Sorry!
You have intrigued me SO much with this book!
Thank You!!!
Happy Holidays!!!!
Laurie Carlson
laurieisreading at gmail dot com
Keeping my fingers crossed to WIN this one!!!!!
Thanks again!!!! What a book!!!!
Do you like Historical fiction like this? Do you normally read fiction, contemporary fiction, Christian Fiction, Amish, and General Fiction books like this? If so, this is what I LOVE!!! We would make a GREAT pair!!! I am always looking for a friend who likes the same types of books like this that I do!! PLEASE email me if you do! I would LOVE to talk books with you!!!
If you are at Goodreads, I am under lauriehere if you get a chance to look it up.
I cannot express the Gratitude I have for this book and Author Interview!!!! Thanks SO much!!! I have to say YOUR blog is one of the MOST enjoyable ones I have come across because of the books you have chosen!! Thanks! I look forward to talking with you if you'd like!!!

Laura H. said...

Thanks for the great giveaway and for participating in this blog hop! This book is already on my wishlist so I would be "tickled pink" to win it! I already follow via GFC (MamaHendo3).