Wednesday, June 30, 2010

More Than Just a Game

After reading Cutting for Stone (CFS) (see blog of June 22, 2010) and enjoying it so much, I wanted to read more by Abraham Verhese. Having recently taken up playing the game of tennis, I had no hesitation in choosing his The Tennis Partner. Unlike CFS, The Tennis Partner is Verghese’s memoir of his initial months on the faculty of Texas Tech School of Medicine in El Paso.

Shortly after his arrival there, he discovers that one of his assigned 4th year medical students is a former tennis professional from Australia. Tennis has a particular importance to Verghese. Growing up in Ethiopia in a somewhat dysfunctional family, Verghese found his escape in countless hours spent outside hitting a tennis ball against a wall. He had fantasized about being a great player and throughout his life had kept detailed journals of his own matches and of his heroes in the game. Before he can stop himself he is inviting David Smith, his student, to play.

That is the start of an incredible story and friendship. Smith and Verghese have much in common: their status as foreigners, their dedication to medicine, their love of tennis, and the unhappy circumstances in their personal relationships with girlfriend and spouse respectively. Verghese had intentionally selected a medical school that was not “first tier” so that he would have time to devote to other aspects of his life including his children, his writing and now, unexpectedly, his tennis. At first he worries about having this contact with his student but Verghese and Smith handle the switch in roles on and off the courts without difficulty.

As you would expect if you have read CFS, Verghese includes realistic portraits of life in the hospital and in this Texas town. There is also good instruction in tennis technique and strategy and, dare I say it, life. “Get the ball back over the net just one more time” could be a good strategy for bad times.

It is not giving much away to say that the story ends sadly. The dedication of the book is: “In memory of David Smith, M.D., 1959-1994.” I long ago learned to avoid reading the Library of Congress catalogue information on the copyright page because it could reveal too much about the book in advance. To that I will now have to add: don’t read the book’s dedication until you have finished reading the book.

Of authors who have been successful in writing fiction and memoir, the name Joan Didion comes quickly to mind. Do you know of others?

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