THE DOCTOR AND THE DIVA

Adrienne McDonnell

It is 1903, and Erika von Kessler has struggled for years to become pregnant. Resigned to childlessness, Erika-a talented opera singer and the wife of a prominent Bostonian-secretly plans to move to Italy to pursue her musical career. When the charismatic Doctor Ravell takes Erika on as a patient, he is mesmerized by her. Impetuously, he takes a shocking risk that could ruin them both.

Inspired by the author’s family history, the novel moves from snowy Boston to the gilded balconies of Florence in a stunning tale of opera, longing, and the indomitable power of romantic obsession.

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It is 1903, and Erika von Kessler has struggled for years to become pregnant. Resigned to childlessness, Erika-a talented opera singer and the wife of a prominent Bostonian-secretly plans to move to Italy to pursue her musical career. When the charismatic Doctor Ravell takes Erika on as a patient, he is mesmerized by her. Impetuously, he takes a shocking risk that could ruin them both.

Inspired by the author’s family history, the novel moves from snowy Boston to the gilded balconies of Florence in a stunning tale of opera, longing, and the indomitable power of romantic obsession.

less …
  • Penguin
  • Paperback
  • October 2011
  • 432 Pages
  • 9780143119302

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About Adrienne McDonnell

Adrienne McDonnell has taught literature and fiction writing at the University of California, Berkeley. She lives near San Francisco in a house overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

Praise

“Some novels just naturally enslave you, and this is one of them…. serious and gripping… [a] brilliant debut novel…”
The Washington Post

“This amazing debut novel … is, quite simply, one of the best novels I’ve read all year.”—an Editor’s Choice selection, Historical Novels Review

“Classic storytelling and modern sensibility don’t always come in the same package. But readers luck out with The Doctor and the Diva. A book to treasure and recommend.”—Bookpage

The Doctor and the Diva, based on old family letters, takes us on a fascinating journey into the hearts and minds of a woman and a man who commit the unthinkable. Brace yourself for the vortex of their deftly drawn lives.”—Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of The Day the Falls Stood Still

Discussion Questions

During the time the novel was set, it was assumed that a problem conceiving meant that the woman had fertility problems. Why do you think that was the case? Medically speaking, has that changed over time? What about with society as a whole? 

Is it easier on a child to have a parent die or have a parent willfully abandon them? Why? Does Peter make the right choice in having Erika’s father ask her to stop writing to her child? What are other ways he could have handled the situation?

Erika reflects, “If only I had been born without this voice. . . . It would have been simpler for everyone.” (218) What does she mean by this? What if pregnancy and childbearing had affected the quality of her voice? Do you think she would have been happier? Why or why not?

Does becoming a parent mean that one must give up on dreams? How could Erika have had both a career and been a good mother?

It takes a long while after Erika arrives in Italy for her to send Ravell a letter. Why do you think she waits so long to get in touch with him?

Erika remarks of her accompanist and his lover, “Two men, friends of hers, in love. How very peculiar that was—contrary to nature’s laws, for no child could ever be born to them.” (283) In what ways is her statement hypocritical?

If Erika’s first child had lived, how might things have unfolded differently? 

When Ravell reveals that he was the child’s father, Erika replies, “I guess I’m glad you did it.” (387) Why do you think she says this?

Should Ravell have lost his practice due to his affair? Knowing that he helped so many couples conceive, could his indiscretion be overlooked? What about his actions in Erika’s first pregnancy? Could his actions ever be justified?

Similar to the question above, if Erika had become a world–class opera star, bringing joy to millions, could she be forgiven for abandoning her child? What if she had left him to find a cure for cancer or some other humanitarian goal? Can a mother ever justifiably leave her child?