Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine

Barbara Vine writes psychological fiction. Or more correctly, Ruth Rendell, creator of the Wexford crime novels, writes psychological fiction under the name Barbara Vine. In The Blood Doctor, Vine/Rendell examines the psychology of heredity, with varying success.

The fictional blood doctor, Henry Nanther, specialized in inherited diseases of the blood, specifically hemophilia. He was one of Queen Victoria’s personal physicians, and he treated several of her sons and grandsons who suffered from this condition. Now, in present day London, Nanther’s great-grandson Martin sets out to write his ancestor’s biography. What he discovers is shocking and unpleasant: Nanther’s research on the inheritability of hemophilia lead him to experiment on his own family, with disastrous results.

But Vine isn’t satisfied to just tell us a story about a creepy 19th century doctor. She is also interested in what else can be inherited: in this case, power. It turns out Henry Nanther was made Lord Nanther by Queen Victoria in honor of his work, and Martin, as eldest heir, has inherited this title. Now (in late 1990’s Britain) the House of Lords is contemplating kicking out all the hereditary peers. Vine fills many pages with the ins and outs of these negotiations, and the backroom workings of the House of Lords. I wish I could say that it was interesting, but I can’t. I skimmed almost all of these parts. I get what Vine was doing but just could not digest it at the level she was doing it.

Finally, Vine examines the effects of non-heredity, that is, infertility. Martin Nanther’s wife Judith is desperate for a baby yet cannot manage to carry one to term. Her anger and disappointment, and her obsession with getting pregnant threaten to destroy their marriage. Vine doesn’t have much new to offer here and these sections are pretty predictable.

Each of these three threads might have made an interesting book on its own (okay, maybe the House of Lords stuff not so much). But together it was too much – too many plots strands, and too many characters to keep track of. I finished it but only read the Henry Nanther story with any great interest.

(Book 17, 2010)


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