The Personal Physician
Maria Stahlie’s novel The Personal Physician is a bold venture in every sense. It is substantial, with dense narrative and sub-plots, and displaying the author’s obvious delight in the nuances of language. Its protagonist, Muriël Wijnings, is a thirty-year old woman who lost her parents as the result of a tragic car accident. The book’s main theme is Muriël delaying the mourning process by fleeing literally and mentally, occupying herself with other matters.
Muriël ‘Disaster’ Wijnings, as she calls herself, is a hypochondriac. She regularly suffers from vivid visions of her body wracked by bowel cancer, a heart attack or some other fatal affliction. It is her fear of suddenly disappearing from this world, as well as of the responsibilities of adulthood that fuel her imagination. She takes a plane to the U.S., marries, has a child, but there promptly flees her vicious, spiteful mother-in-law.
Ashamed of her hypochondria, which caused her parents’ death as they hurried to her side, Muriël believes she brings disaster wherever she goes. It is this shame and guilt which deny her the ability to mourn. Ashamed too of abandoning her baby by fleeing in panic, she sets herself a task–to become the personal physician of an old Hungarian diabetic. In accordance with Hungarian custom, she moves in with the woman’s family. Her intimate relationship, responsibility, and life with the family prove both cathartic and a recipe for more disaster–since Muriël did not finish her studies, accepting the job on the spur of the moment, she has to weave an intricate web of ever more ingenious lies. Stahlie’s depiction of this struggle, which eventually leads to a bonus of love, is both light and fresh, making it easy for the reader to see how a shy, engaging person is pushed to her limits, yet is saved by the generous hand of fate in the nick of time. Masterful!