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Doctor Bloom’s Story

by Don Coles

In his first novel, poet Don Coles interweaves a compelling story about an abused wife with the reflections of his narrator, the aging Dutch doctor Nicolaas Bloom, on saintliness, masochism, and the life and work of that other literary physician, Anton Chekhov.

Dr. Bloom, newly immigrated to Canada, has cut back on his work as a cardiologist following the death of his beautiful wife Saskia. He is restless, and so enrolls in a writing workshop – this fictional memoir is the fruit of his efforts. In the class Bloom meets Sophie, an enigmatic Swiss woman who is being badly treated by her graduate student husband. How to get her out of his clutches becomes the story’s narrative engine: Dr. Bloom falls in love again and considers murder. Coles sets things up skillfully, and the reader keeps turning pages to find out what will happen.

Books by and about men of a certain age have the advantage of drawing on decades of living and reflection. But, like many of those books, Doctor Bloom’s Story often seems inspired by andropausal daydreams. Here the main male characters all have younger women lovers, and Dr. Bloom only once notices a similarity between Sophie’s plight and the way his own wife wasted away. Coles has Dr. Bloom hesitate so long before intervening in Sophie’s case that I was ready to call 911 myself.

Coles, who has won many awards for collections of poetry, tells Dr. Bloom’s story with an ear attuned to the rhythms of speech and an admirable eye for detail. But as someone who still struggles to write passable French after 30 years of trying, I found both Sophie’s and Dr. Bloom’s written eloquence in English little short of miraculous. Perhaps such a miracle should be expected in a book where spiritual concerns take up as much space as do sex and violence.