Picks and Pans Review: Other Women's Children

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Perri Klass

There may be an interesting novel to be written about a dedicated pediatrician trying to cope with the demands of a large patient load at a big city hospital, the demands of her bright young son and of her cabinetmaker husband. But the very predictable Other Women's Children isn't it.

Klass, a Cambridge, Mass., pediatrician with a young son, has written a book that seems more documentary than novel. And it is a documentary with an annoyingly limited theme stated over and over: If Amelia can restore health to 13-month-old patient Sara Blake, who for murky reasons is failing to thrive, or to 28-month-old Tiffany, who has fallen out of a second-story window, or to 3-year-old AIDS baby Darren, it might provide a "vaccination" against harm for her own beamingly healthy son, Alexander.

Indeed, Amelia is obsessed with her son's health—during routine cuddling with him, she reassures herself the kid has good access veins for an IV. Even a reader whose attention wanders knows that somewhere, somehow, sometime in this book Alexander is going to end up in the hospital along with Darren and Sara. Klass seems to think that by stopping the narrative every now and then to discourse on the use of a child's illness as a literary contrivance (Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Beth March in Little Women, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop), she insulates herself from criticism for doing precisely the same thing.

"I do not want to write about children who are sick." she says, all the while writing about children who are sick. "If I could. I would show the cruelty of life through the little pains and the helplessness of the well-intentioned, but I would not invoke the agony of the parent who stands by a hospital bed and watches a child fight for breath. See how the sentimental tear-jerking comes as quickly as that; the child is clutching his teddy bear (his teddy bear! for Christ's sake!). See how his little chest sucks in and out."

Klass knows her territory. The hospital scenes are as bleak and heartbreaking as hospital scenes ought to be: there are details about resuscitation techniques and medications. Yet one can't help but feel manipulated. It doesn't help that Amelia's husband, Matt, comes off as rather a spoiled brat and that Alexander isn't nearly as winsome as his parents think he is. (Random House. $19.95)

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