The Spirit of the Place
The Kent State University Press
A new novel by the national bestselling author of The House of God
Samuel Shem’s classic novel about medical internship, The House of God, is required reading in medical schools throughout the world and is celebrated for its authentic description of medical training and practice, for its Rabelaisian comedy, and for its humanism and vision. His new novel, and most ambitious work yet, The Spirit of the Place, tells the story of an expatriate doctor called home to Columbia, New York, in the early 1980s to face his own history and that of the place. It is a novel of love and death, mothers and sons, ghosts and bullies, doctors and patients, illness and healing.
Settled into a passionate relationship with an Italian yoga instructor and happily working in a European spa, Dr. Orville Rose’s newfound peace is shattered by a telegram informing him of his mother’s death. On his return to Columbia, a Hudson River town of quirky people and “plagued by breakage,” he learns that his mother has willed him a large sum of money, her 1981 Chrysler, and her Victorian house in the center of town. But there’s a catch: he must live in her house continuously for a year and thirteen days.
As he struggles with his decision—whether to stay and meet the terms of the will or return to his love and life in Italy—Orville reconnects with Bill Starbuck, the town doctor who mentored a young Orville and who practices a long-ago kind of medicine that treats the working poor, people neglected and forgotten by the medical and insurance industries. Now in his seventies, and in need of help with the practice, Bill convinces Orville to stay.
During the course of his year and thirteen days, Orville reacquaints himself with Columbia and Columbians. He reunites with his sister and niece and comes to terms with old rivals and bitter memories. And he doctors a community in desperate need of care. He also meets Miranda Braak, a remarkable young single mother who aspires to be the town historian. Her knowledge of and reverence for the past challenges Orville to examine his own history, and her courage, integrity, and love challenge him to grow. In this story filled with wit, pointed insight, and drama, Orville learns what it means to be a healer, and to be healed.
The Spirit of the Place is Shem at his finest—compassionate, capacious, funny, full of big ideas and memorable personalities. It offers an authentic, unvarnished portrait of the medical profession and underscores the crucial link between the health of individuals and the health of communities.