cover image Health and Happiness

Health and Happiness

Diane Johnson. Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95 (259pp) ISBN 978-0-394-58717-2

Having chosen to set her latest novel (after Persian Nights ) in a hospital milieu (within the San Francisco Bay Area), Johnson succeeds remarkably well in replicating that world, but not so well in the delineation of character, a talent her previous works revealed in full measure. Here, perhaps, her signature ironic detachment holds the characters at too far a remove; the women in particular are passive, flaky, even silly, with no intellectual life. The doctors, too, are stereotypical, and we instinctively know that the model of rectitude will have the farthest fall from grace. The plot revolves around Ivy Tarro, an exceptionally beautiful single mother, who is admitted with a minor problem that is treated incorrectly, propelling her to the verge of death. Johnson not only knows how a hospital works, she understands the professional and social hierarchies; the rivalry between the medical and surgical services; the subtle distinctions among house staff; the crises, from the moral to the mundane; the questions of medical ethics, complicated by the availability of lifesaving equipment. (The most effective scenes are, in fact, graphic descriptions of patients being kept alive by artificial means.) The timeliness of her theme and her adroit plotting, should make this Johnson's most commercial novel; one cannot but wish, however, that the narrative were less facile and more deeply felt. Literary Guild alternate. (Sept.)