The Apprenticeship of Dr. Laverty

by Patrick Taylor
324 pages,
ISBN: 1894663772

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A Young Doctor in Training
by Steven W. Beattie

There are words in the English lexicon that anyone who writes book reviews professionally should make every effort to eschew. They are words like "rollicking" or "thrilling" or "gripping" or the odious "unputdownable." Such adjectives are to be avoided because they are clichTs, verbal counters that a reviewer will reach for out of habit if a more original or thoughtful turn of phrase does not spring to mind. They are the critical equivalent of IKEA furniture: bland, prefabricated, and instantly recognizable (these are the words that are frequently quoted in those slavering, fawning blurbs that publishers insist on slapping on the backs of books in an effort to boost their sales.)
One such prefab term is "heartwarming". Now, I confess that I am not generally a fan of novels that can reasonably be described as "heartwarming": besides its obviously clichTd and shopworn aspect, the term brings to mind books about ladies' bridge clubs in small English towns, or stories about the struggles of a valiant pair of cougar cubs trying to reunite with their pack. These stories do not as a rule warm the cockles of my heart; that burning sensation is more likely to be angina or some sort of acid reflux. I appear to be cursed with perennially cool cockles.
It was with a certain amount of trepidation, therefore, that I approached Patrick Taylor's latest novel, The Apprenticeship of Doctor Laverty, a book that features the aforementioned angina-inspiring clichT prominently in the back-cover publicity bumpf. The early indications were not good.
The novel opens with the newly minted physician Barry Laverty arriving in the small Irish town of Ballybucklebo (an author's note helpfully explains the derivation of this rather awkward tongue twister), where he is to apprentice with the local GP, Doctor Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly. It is apparent from the outset that O'Reilly is something of an eccentric: during their first encounter, O'Reilly tosses a patient out of his house into a rose bush while berating him in an Irish brogue that leaves no room for misinterpretation: "You're an eejit, Seamus Galvin. A born-again, blethering, bejesusly, bollocks of a buck eejit." The good doctor's bedside manner would appear to leave something to be desired.
Of course, the gruff exterior belies O'Reilly's skill and experience as a country doctor; he knows how to deal with the citizens of Ballybucklebo and has managed over the years to earn their trust and respect. Not so the young Dr. Laverty, who finds he must work hard to win the townspeople over. Officious and somewhat rigid in his approach to medicine, Dr. Laverty uses words like hypospadias (in laypeople's terms, "the little hole the pee comes through") and frequently expresses surprise at O'Reilly's unorthodox methods. But his encounters with the various denizens of Ballybucklebo convince Laverty that although his book learning may be sound, there are still things he could glean about the human side of medicine from the older man. And, perhaps, there are one or two things that he could teach Dr. O'Reilly.
The Apprenticeship of Dr. Laverty is an episodic novel, which often betrays its origins as a monthly column in the journal Stitches. There is an unplanned pregnancy, one character suffers a mild stroke, and another incurs complications from apendicitis, but it quickly becomes apparent that in the world of the novel, nothing truly dire is going to befall these characters. By the end of the book, the good people will triumph, the bad people will be punished, and the whole town can participate in a ruddy great cTili. The book is comfort food: it's a warm bowl of macaroni and cheese on a cold and blustery night.
These qualities are at once the book's strength and its weakness. Taylor displays the Irish storyteller's gift for spinning a yarn; it is easy to picture him at the local pub, a pint of Guinness clutched in one hand, regaling the regulars with stories about hypochondriacs and other eccentrics. But the book's relentless niceness can be tedious: life escapes, as Virginia Woolf famously proclaimed. The novel's insistence on being pleasant and comfortable at all costs means that there is no edge, no challenge in its pages, nothing to get a reader exercised or engaged.
The complacent nature of the book extends to the writing. ClichTs abound throughout the novel, most especially in the chapter titles, which include such stock locutions as "By The Dawn's Early Light", "Don't Rain on My Parade", and "Marching to a Different Drummer", to name but three. And the author has a tendency to explain things to his readers rather than suggesting them or letting them develop organically through the course of his story: "Barry realized that O'Reilly's flippancy was as much his personal camouflage as the dazzle of paint on the hull of his old ship's pictures that hung on his landing walls." This tendency to explain extends to the medical passages in the book: "Barry put a hand on the side of the major's neck. He could feel the tension in the sternocleidomastoid, the strap of muscle that runs from the clavicle to the base of the skull. It was probably a simple sprain or more probably torticollis, spasm of the muscle which was frequently a manifestation of hysteria ..." A little of this is fine to give the reader a sense of the doctors' knowledge and competence, but there were a few too many of these overly long passages.
So at the novel's close, in what state did I find my notoriously cool cockles? Did the book live up to its billing? It pains me to report that as I turned the final page of The Apprenticeship of Doctor Laverty, my heart remained in its stubbornly chilly state. Not for want of trying on the part of the author, and I do confess to feeling a strange upward tugging at the corners of my mouth on occasion as I made my way through the novel.
In the end, it may come down to a matter of taste. Another reader might find the adventures of Drs. O'Reilly and Laverty a perfect antidote to the travails of a weary world. As a light entertainment, a diversion from the more pressing worries of modern life, Taylor's novel could be just what the doctor ordered (sorry, couldn't resist). The book is like a blanket made of Irish wool; it's comfortably enveloping, friendly, and familiar. But in the final analysis, it didn't provide sufficient heat to warm my belligerent heart.

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