Review: The Care of Strangers by Ellen Michaelson (2020)

The Care of Strangers by Ellen Michaelson

Blurb

Working as an orderly in a gritty Brooklyn public hospital, Sima is often reminded by her superiors that she’s the least important person there. An immigrant who, with her mother, escaped vicious anti-Semitism in Poland, she spends her shifts transporting patients, observing the doctors and residents … and quietly nurturing her aspirations to become a doctor herself by going to night school. Now just one credit short of graduating, she finds herself faltering in the face of pressure from her mother not to overreach, and to settle for the life she has now.

Everything changes when Sima encounters Mindy Kahn, an intern doctor struggling through her residency. Sensing a fellow outsider in need of support, Sima bonds with Mindy over their patients, and learns the power of truly letting yourself care for another person, helping to give her the courage to face her past, and take control of her future.

A moving story about vulnerability and friendship, The Care of Strangers is the story of one woman’s discovery that sometimes interactions with strangers are the best way to find yourself.

Review

There are lots of reasons why I was delighted to be contacted by the publisher, Melville House, and offered a digital copy in exchange for an honest review: firstly, they are the US publishers of the fantastic Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession, which I, like so many, adored; next: they were kind enough to say they had noticed and appreciated my support of indie publishers, and thirdly, having just finished Cath Barton’s lovely novella In The Sweep of the Bay (published by another fab indie, Louise Walters Books), I had just rediscovered the joy of this particular form (though it is described as a ‘novel’ on the cover, The Care of Strangers is definitely more novella in length, and has won prizes as such). My final reason was simply that there seems no better time to read about the ordinary, extraordinary people who work in hospitals.

Sima, the protagonist, emigrated from Poland as a child. She works as a hospital orderly and takes pre-med courses in the hope of one day becoming a doctor. What I found most striking about this curiously gentle, subtle story was how the author manages to convey, in a very delicate and unobtrusive way, how Sima has all the makings of a good doctor. With each description of her taking care of her patients and watching her co-workers, we build up a picture of someone for whom this setting, this life of looking after others and making quick but careful decisions, seems inevitable. It is really quite moving and humbling – I’ve always had enormous respect for health workers, and of course in recent times my admiration has gone through the roof, and I really liked the way this story shows that it is a kind of vocation, that there is something special about those whose professional lives revolve around caring for others, without resorting to drama and dazzling heroics. Sima is calm, controlled, thoughtful, empathetic without being sentimental, and it is a special kind of pleasure and privilege to watch her work, so to speak.

There is a lilting, gentle beauty to Ellen Michaelson’s writing. The repetition of daily routines, the medical terminology, and the level of observational detail all flow together to become quite lyrical and meditative. The work that Sima and her colleagues do forms a constant backdrop to her growing friendship with Mindy, and their relationship is as delicately nuanced as everything else in the book. Sima both pities and idolises the intern; she tries to protect her while also seeing her as a mentor. It is a very real, convincing portrait of how bonds come to be forged, and I really enjoyed watching the dynamics between the two characters ebb and flow.

This is a delicate, subtle, understated story that offers a realistic glimpse into hospital life without using melodrama or romance tropes or any of the other ‘hooks’ with which the lay person is often baited in order to find their way into this very specific world. I will always be in such awe of people whose life’s work is caring for others, and I’m grateful for this small insight into what it must be like to be such a person. Michaelson’s own medical background gives this book a depth and authenticity which makes it read like a fictional memoir, closer in some ways to non-fiction. It is another wonderful example of the possibilities of the novella form. I’m very glad to have spent time with Sima, and I highly recommend her story.

Author website: https://www.ellenmichaelson.com/

The Care of Strangers by Ellen Michaelson is published by Melville House and is available to purchase here.

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