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Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams
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Touching Distance (2008)

by Rebecca Abrams

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Summary: Talented young doctor Alec Gordon is mystified by a fever killing otherwise healthy new mothers. His methods to treat it are greeted with scepticism and are mostly unsuccessful. His accounts show that he is treating many more patients than can afford to pay for his services, and his colleagues at the hospital are not keen on his candour and lack of politics. At home, his wife is struggling with depression and flashbacks of her life in the West Indies. Based on a true story.

I know that the book is based on a true story, although you always have to wonder how much is “true story” and much is artistic licence… but the succession of deaths and the increasingly brutal methods attempting to save the mothers are shocking enough without knowing that it did actually happen! In the postscript, the author points out that the fever which was eventually discovered is still a major cause of death in less developed countries. As I found with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the historical aspect of medicine was fascinating – the ways which were accepted as best practice now seem almost barbaric.

I also thought that the demonstration of the social mix was an interesting idea and well-developed: the idea of a young doctor from a poor background, with a lawyer and a farmer for brothers, marrying into a once affluent family with sugar plantations in the West Indies; the settled politics and hostility to an outsider, particularly one who won’t play by the rules, etc.

I thought Alec Gordon was a bit too perfect and Elizabeth a bit too useless – in fact I found all the characters a little polarised, although Robbie was pleasantly well-rounded. Elizabeth had her own sub-story – her malaise at home, waiting for her husband to come back from house calls at the ends of the city, her detachment from her child – with which I didn’t have much patience. The marriage was depicted as very bitter, which seemed out of keeping with the two characters.

A pleasant and informative read, but not about to trouble literary prize committees. ( )
  readingwithtea | Oct 19, 2010 |
New novel ( )
  pharrm | Aug 23, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0330449524, Paperback)

It is 1790. After ten years’ training in the great medical schools of Europe, Alec Gordon has returned to Scotland to take up the post of physician in the Aberdeen Dispensary. Alec has ambitious plans for modernizing medical practice in the town, starting with the local midwives, whose ignorance and old-fashioned methods appal him.

But Alec’s dreams of progress are thrown into disarray when a mysterious disease suddenly strikes the town, attacking and killing every newly delivered mother for miles around. Alec alone recognizes it as childbed fever, a disease more deadly than the plague, a condition that has baffled the greatest physicians of the age, an illness with no known cause and no known cure.

Desperate to save his patients’ lives, Alec sets out on an astonishing medical quest to conquer the disease. But while Alec struggles to find solutions that lie far in the future, his wife Elizabeth is increasingly lost in the past, prey to terrifying memories of her childhood in Antigua. As she knows and he will learn, some diseases lie beyond the reach of reason.

Based on a true story, Touching Distance is a stunning historical novel that brings to life a fascinating period in world history, exploring the tragic limitations of knowledge and the deep-seated tension between reason and passion in the Age of Enlightenment.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:49 -0400)

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'Touching Distance' is a historical novel which explores the wider issues of the age: the abolition of the slave trade, civil unrest in America and the French Revolution. It tells of the tensions between reason and passion and of the corruption underlying the heart of a prosperous city.… (more)

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