This novel intertwines the stories of Joyce and Marnie Novak, a mother and daughter, as Joyce endures a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment while in the midst of planning Marnie’s wedding. Marnie, a fourth-year medical student heading for a surgery internship, is too busy to run to florists and negotiate with caterers. And Marnie has her own issues to contend with, not least of which is her growing doubt about her fiancï¿½, Carson, with whom she has precious little in common. Marnie is also heavily invested in getting through to a long-term patient named Candy, in and out of the hospital from drug overdoses. Marnie knows that Candy won’t survive another overdose and in lavishing attention on her, hopes she will stay clean this time around.
Bedside Manners was written by a physician who specializes in diagnostic radiology and breast imaging, and her expertise shows. The story is strongest and most realistic when dealing with medical issues, including their psychological impacts.
For example, we easily understand Joyce’s shock and fright when she learns of her cancer diagnosis. Joyce can’t help but catastrophize about the “what if” scenarios, wondering if she’ll be weak and wearing a wig due to chemo hair loss by the time of Marnie’s wedding. Joyce’s husband, Alan, is a successful dental surgeon who tries to be supportive, but his manner of support often leaves Joyce feeling she’d rather face most of the difficult appointments herself. Joyce finds comfort through a breast cancer support group, where she is free to vent her deepest fears and find inspiration through others’ experiences.
I enjoyed the novel more as it went along, but a few things bothered me as well. It was hard to understand Marnie’s emotional investment in Candy, because she was already, tragically, seemingly beyond caring what happened to her. Marnie may have seen her real vulnerability and heart, but this reader only saw a brittle exterior. Additionally, Joyce always seems slightly annoyed with her husband, but the tension is never explored. It would have been helpful to show them having more discussions about their relationship—there is only one of significance, toward the end of the book.
The author highlighted that the Novaks are Jewish, though not religious, and Joyce just shrugs off that Marnie is engaged to a Southern-born and bred gentile named Carson. Marnie and Joyce only seem to become more concerned over the intermarriage when Carson’s mother makes some vaguely anti-Jewish (mostly, anti-Marnie) comments. There was zero discussion about the larger implications of intermarriage. And finally, Marnie’s grandmother, Nana Ida, speaks in a Yiddish, old-world style that is heavy on stereotypes and feels unrealistic for a woman of her generation.
Joyce and Marnie grow and change as individuals and become closer through these experiences. As a reader, I gained insight into the frightening road of breast cancer that many of my friends have traveled, but which, thank God, I have been spared.