An Imperfect Lens

Overview

Acclaimed author Anne Roiphe evokes the sights and sounds of 1880s Alexandria, Egypt, a bustling center of trade and travel. From teeming docks to overflowing market stalls, from grand homes to grimy narrow alleyways, cholera microbes rise and bob in streams of water and tiny droplets, clinging to moisture as man clings to air.

With a keen mind and dedication to his work, young Louis Thuillier has impressed his mentor—famed scientist Louis Pasteur—enough to be sent to Alexandria...

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Imperfect Lens: A Novel

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Overview

Acclaimed author Anne Roiphe evokes the sights and sounds of 1880s Alexandria, Egypt, a bustling center of trade and travel. From teeming docks to overflowing market stalls, from grand homes to grimy narrow alleyways, cholera microbes rise and bob in streams of water and tiny droplets, clinging to moisture as man clings to air.

With a keen mind and dedication to his work, young Louis Thuillier has impressed his mentor—famed scientist Louis Pasteur—enough to be sent to Alexandria as one-third of the French mission searching for the source of the cholera that is terrorizing the city. Along with the other members of the French mission—scientists Emile Roux and Edmond Nocard and their enterprising servant Marcus—Louis longs to find the cure, bringing glory to himself and to France. Este Malina is the lovely daughter of a respected Jewish doctor, whose family has lived in Alexandria for hundreds of years. A life of comfort has made Este a romantic, and she hopes to marry a man with the heart of a poet. Neither expects to find a soul mate in the other, but when Este begins to assist at the French mission’s lab, a deep bond forms. Este, though, is engaged to another, and Louis is not Jewish—her family would never allow them to marry.

In spite of their many differences, the lovers’ desire grows and their fantasies threaten to distract them from their work. In Alexandria, the disease rages on, as mysterious as it was a thousand years before. Political intrigue threatens to separate Este and Louis permanently. Their love, as fragile as the glass slides they use in the lab, is in danger before it has had a chance to thrive.

With An Imperfect Lens, rich with the sights and scents of a different era, Anne Roiphe once again demonstrates the storytelling power for which she has long been hailed.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Advance Praise For An Imperfect Lens

“With dazzling richness and suspense, Anne Roiphe brings to life 19th-century Alexandria and its myriad cultures. An Imperfect Lens subtly delineates the interplay of venality and compassion within men and women struggling to cope with disaster. This is a novel of exceptional immediacy and insight.” —Lauren Belfer, author of City of Light

“Set in the borderlands between science and religion, East and West, enlightenment and ignorance, An Imperfect Lens is a wonderfully written story reminding us that medical research was not always an industry but, rather, a sacred calling and a holy quest. Poetic, fascinating, and a damn good read.” —Mary Doria Russell, author of The Sparrow

“Weaving together the true-life story of scientists trying to stem a deadly epidemic, and the struggle of a Jewish family to survive political repression circa 1880s Egypt, Anne Roiphe has written a fascinating, almost painfully vivid novel that is compulsively readable.” —Naomi Ragen, author of The Covenant

From the Hardcover edition.

Donna Riftkind
In these and many other reflections on epidemics and their consequences, Roiphe rescues the narrative from its flaws. She mentions in an author's note that she was inspired to write this book in honor of her brother, a hematologist who died of AIDS. One cannot help being moved by her personal connection to the story when reading those passages about the precariousness of health and the stealth of disease, which are by far the book's most eloquent parts, and which make An Imperfect Lens , despite its imperfections, a historical novel with a strikingly contemporary sensibility.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Cholera arrives in Alexandria in 1883, followed by an intrepid French research team sent by Louis Pasteur to find and identify the "swimming monster." In this riveting account of a public health crisis and the (then) cutting-edge science that aimed to save countless lives, Roiphe (Secrets of the City) blends fact with fiction to bring historical scientists to life. The team includes Louis Thuillier, whose exacting professional persona belies a romantic side; compassionate veterinarian Edmond Nocard; Emile Roux, much respected, if a bit rough around the edges; and their fun-loving young assistant, Marcus. The Frenchmen race rampant death-and the German Dr. Robert Koch, who discovered the cause of tuberculosis-to find the cholera microbe. Roiphe weaves a love story within the urgent scientific mission, providing Thuillier with an object of affection in Este Malina, the intellectually curious daughter of a Jewish doctor. Este admires the medical passion of the French scientists, Thuillier in particular, and the two fall in love when she begins assisting in their lab. Against Alexandria's vibrant backdrop, Roiphe infuses her richly textured, propulsive story with a sense of doom brought by a microscopic enemy. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1883, cholera swept through Egypt, prompting biologist Louis Pasteur to send a team of scientists headed by Louis Thuillier to Alexandria in search of the microbe responsible for the deadly disease. Veteran novelist Roiphe (Secrets of the City) sheds light on a less well-known chapter in the history of medicine in this complex, multilayered tale. The natural history, gruesome symptoms, and seemingly indifferent nature of cholera are described in painstaking detail. As the disease sweeps through the city, Thuillier and his team harvest samples, design experiments, and pore over endless slides. As if this material weren't thrilling enough, Roiphe adds a poignant love story that pairs the pragmatic Thuillier with the poetry-dazzled Este Malina, who serves as the French team's lab assistant. Subplots involving class, religion, and colonialism round out the narrative, which will no doubt please fans of literary romance and historical fiction. Recommended where literary fiction is in demand.-Leigh Anne Vrabel, Carnegie Lib. of Pittsburgh Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Part science whodunit, part romance, part travelogue, this tale makes magic of the most ghastly of subjects-a cholera epidemic in fin-de-siecle Egypt. Star pupil of the legendary Pasteur, Louis Thuillier heads breathlessly on a steamship to Alexandria. With brio, Roiphe (Secrets of the City, 2003, etc.) renders that fabled city of the mystic East. Now, however, its exotic visage is disfigured by the ugliest of plagues. Giddy, cramped, vomiting and finally collapsing blue in the face, the townsfolk need saving from cholera, a horror that's flummoxed physicians since Hippocrates. Thuillier's mission? Find a cause, manufacture a cure. Yet the cosmopolis confronts him not only with a labyrinthine cacophony of winding alleys and wailing muezzins, but a war zone of colonial intrigue. The French consulate jousts with the British, and even purportedly disinterested scientists wield imperialist banners: Thuillier and his compatriot crew must contend in a Great Race with Germany's Robert Koch, conqueror of tuberculosis and rival of the Frenchmen in this life-and-death science fair. Brilliant, feverish and earnest, Thuillier hunts germs, pausing from his microscope only long enough to fall for the luscious Este, daughter of a local august Jewish doctor. Here, too, there's rivalry: Thuillier must defeat a British twit who, himself spurned by Este, nefariously accuses her father of espionage. A wicked plotter, Roiphe scores, too, by making not only love and fighting but, of all things, scientific discovery, a fascinating adventure. Recalling eminent Victorian fare, this is historical fiction as high art.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400082124
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/24/2006
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,247,563
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Roiphe is the author of eight novels, including Secrets of the City, and nonfiction work, including the National Book Award nominee Fruitful. She lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

1

After a night at anchor, a local pilot at the wheel, the Andromeda made her way around the small lighthouse that stood at the end of a long jetty. The dhows, brigantines, barques, and sloops entering the new port navigated carefully through the rocky channel of Boghaz.

Once in the harbor the ship passed the black hulks of rusting ironclads, from the sterns of which trailed the red flag with the star and crescent. Seamen with red caps were everywhere. Steersmen in beards and tarbooshes rowed out among the ships, where, above their heads, flew the flag of the United States of America and the Union Jack. Steamers from French and English companies shot into and out of the harbor or rested, temporarily moored, in the inner briny waters. Some of the pasha's feluccas floated back and forth. They showed a Turkish flourish painted on the stern, and long-tailed Arabian characters were painted in gold on their paddle boxes. Steam whistles erupted in noisy calls as gray smudges from smokestacks marked the sky, and bells screamed out over the port.

The sun was burning down on the wooden railings of the ship. The captain stood on the forecastle and watched as his sailors made fast the ropes, swabbed the deck, and rolled the barrels containing the cloth up from the hold, down the planks, and onto the docks below. The ship bobbed up and down gently on the high tide. The journey had not been unduly harsh. They had encountered only one storm and had weathered it without damage and with only the expected loss of sleep as well as the loss of one cousin of one man who was himself a cousin of a third, whose head was knocked by a swinging boom in the midst of an abrupt turn. The man's death was noted by the captain in his log, although his name was left unrecorded and his body dropped with a few Christian words spoken into the waters of the sea, where it disappeared along with the shafts of light, the puffed buds of a stalk of seaweed, the shimmering scales of fish, the rank smell of human waste released from a recently used pail, all mingled with salt spray, as the traces of blood washed off the deck.

The ship was carrying large bolts of dyed cloth purchased from a trader in Calcutta, cloth pressed and cut and stretched out on wooden poles. Dozens of barefoot men had poured water into the waiting barrels, stacked the cargo hold, packed the grain and dried fruit in baskets. As they worked, they often slipped in the low river that ran from behind the company's storage shed down to the docks. The men's hands were stained dark by the mud in the water. The bolts of cloth, blues and reds, some stenciled with gold dye in shapes of birds and vines, were destined for the bodies of the women of Egypt, to wrap around curves, to accentuate breasts, to decorate with bangles and brooches. This would be done in the manner of the women of Paris, to please in the privacy of their rooms the tastes of men. This was not cheap cargo, a fact that contributed to the captain's satisfaction.

The heat of the day was stifling. The sailors wore no shirts, and their shoes, made of simple turns of rope, were often kicked aside so they could scramble, climb, and pull and push their cargo more efficiently. The reserves of fresh water had almost been exhausted. There were two barrels left, one on the port side, one on the starboard side. The first was hauled up on deck and the boy, who served many purposes and who was passed at night from hammock to hammock, dipped the copper cup again and again into the barrel and carried the water, carefully, balancing against the rocking of the boat, the passing of the men, the hauling of the cloth, the rope ladders swung up and down along the sides of the ship, and he gave water to those who called to him. As he climbed over the chain that held the anchor that moored the boat in the harbor, a seagull flew close by the boy's head, spread wings brushing against his cheek. The boy ducked and, in doing so, slipped. The water he was carrying fell on his own foot, seeped between his dusty toes that were cracked with the dryness of the sun, with the beating of the wind that so often rose out of the sea. He refilled his pail from the barrel.

Unseen pulsing crescent moon shapes, safe in their invisible, rapid motion, moved like vastly shrunken versions of the Word of God on the walls of a recalcitrant kingdom. The boy carried them on his foot, in his cup, in his pail. No one rejected the water he offered. Without water a man could not work in this heat. Even with water, some of the men needed to pause, to squat down on the deck, and all could feel their tongues swollen and dry against the roofs of their mouths. The tissue in their throats plumped with the water as it flowed with the tilt of the head back toward their throats, bringing relief. The captain called the boy, and the boy brought the cup to the captain, who, before he drank, poured some of the water over his hands, covered as they were with the dust in the air, churned up by the wheels of the carriages on the docks, the carts pulling cargo, the men climbing up and descending. It took a few hours for the English customs inspectors, surrounded by fully armed British soldiers, to emerge from their quarters from which flew the British flag that had so recently replaced the French flag, a matter of complete indifference to the captain and his crew.

Great palaces lined the wide avenue that curved along the shore, while more modest homes stood at the center of the city. The mosques rose, domed and white, above the smaller alleys. The dome of the Orthodox church shone like a half lemon above the trees that lined the streets. In the bazaar, the olive pits and the splashes of wine and overripe fruit mingled on the cobblestones with the blood of slaughtered animals. The noise of the city, the clacking of wooden shoes, the ringing of bells, the yelling of merchants, the clap of donkeys' hooves on the stones, the running of the donkey boys as they called "ride, ride," in Italian, English, Arabic, French, the barking of dogs, the screeching of birds in cages, the heavy wet heat of the day, the dust in which all these things stirred and sighed, shifted and changed positions, made the boy weary. He took a piece of bread offered by one of the sailors and ate it, pulling at it slowly with his hands. The bread turned dark from the dust on his fingers.

Later the boy fell asleep on a bench in a tavern. He woke with a start. There was a pain in his stomach. He rushed to the street and, in the early hours, by the light of the million pale fading stars above, the contents of his bowels flowed over the mud of the stone curb. When the sun rose and the first stirrings of animal and man began and the arched open windows, windows without glass, let in the innocent rays of a new day, he stretched out in the gutter, covered with dirt, his own and more that he had found in the street, his limbs trembling.

A child in the street, a dirty child, was not rare. Before most of the men of Alexandria had woken in their beds, washed their faces in the basins, tasted the coffee brewed in their kitchens, the boy's body had shriveled, flattened, lost its copper color, turned gray like slate. His eyes open, he lay dead. No hand had come in the middle of the night to comfort him. No mother had brought him sips of water, or prayed for his soul's redemption.

Out of the water life climbed, and all life requires water still. Human beings are more water than flesh, afloat in their own bodies, and yet, out of water, necessary water, welcome water, can come death. And so it was that a sailor from the same ship woke in the bed he had paid to sleep in on the top floor above the tavern. He was warm with fever, cold with fever, bowels running, eyes slipping back into their sockets. His barmaid pulled the now odorous sheets out from under his limp body and sent her young daughter to fetch water so she could wash them in the tub in the backyard. Before dawn the sailor had died, the water in which the sheets had been washed had been thrown into the alleyway where barefoot girls were playing with a wooden doll and the wheels of carts splashed through, catching the water on their spokes and rims.

The captain took a week to load his ship with cargo going back to Calcutta. He would carry hemp and boxes of brilliant blue turquoise stone dug from the hills, and his chests would hold gold coins, money for the owners of the ship, and treasures, souvenirs that each man had purchased in the markets, a feather, a hat, a postcard, a button made of bark.

In the following days the very young woman, breasts still turned upward, hips not yet pleasingly wide, but slim like a boy's, who had welcomed a sailor to her bed, taking a few coins for her efforts to please, drinking with him a cup of wine, allowing his mouth to kiss a burn she had received from the rack in the oven, collapsed in a doorway, trying to flee the thing that was inside her. She died there.

Some life-forms are meant for the desert heat and some are meant for the cold of the arctic, like the tiny worm that eats the smaller bacteria that survive all through the long dark winter in near frozen states under the snow in the turquoise ice of glacial peaks. Some organisms make their happy homes on the warm, hairy skin of deer and squirrels and bats. Some survive in the darkness of the earth, sipping moisture from the droplets of rain that seep downward toward the earth's boiling center. Some survive in the bellies of mosquitoes and some in the warm bloodstream of human beings. People are so proud of their souls, vaunted capacity for distinguishing between good and evil, for devotion to God, for service to king or country and charity to beggars, but in fact souls are easily crushed, vaporized, eliminated by the tiny microbes that swirl about, indifferent to Michelangelo's David and the Ten Commandments and the grand pyramids, or the Gothic arch, as well as the petty tremors in their lustful or loving hearts.

The day the ship was set to sail back to Calcutta, the captain had visited the offices of the Pacific Company, which were on the wide street beyond where the library of Alexandria, the fabled burnt library, had once stood. The captain had carried his logs with him and, while receiving congratulations for a job well done from the short British gentleman who had almost disappeared behind the large desk, was offered by an Egyptian clerk a piece of fruit from a glass bowl. The captain picked up a round green apple and then saw a more appealing-looking pear. He put down the apple and took the pear, which he placed on the offered plate. The clerk took the bowl of fruit back into his own office and there bit into the apple, devouring it to its core. The clerk went home to his wife and that night conceived a child whom he would one day take to the beach, teaching him how to dive into the white froth of the waves.

The captain, back in his quarters on his ship, had a headache. It was more than just a result of the full day he had spent on land. His legs felt weak, and the muscles in his thighs began to tremble. Within hours he was lying on the deck, having ripped off his shirt in his fever, and his men gathered around him as he thrashed about and his eyes seemed to disappear back in his head and streaks of blue and purple appeared on his skin and the sailors washed him again and again as his bowels turned thin and bloody and his fever rose. Perhaps he was over the worst of it, perhaps he was one of the lucky ones who might have recovered, but when the tide was right and the ship's first mate pulled up the anchor and the ship sailed out of sight of the port of Alexandria, the men in their fear pushed the still-breathing captain overboard into the dark moving waves.

The year was 1883. Cholera had come to Alexandria.

2

It was late winter, in Paris.

The famous scientist Louis Pasteur received in his laboratory at the Ecole Normale a package of papers from the Academy of Science. It contained, among the thick sheets now spread out on his desk, this report from October 1831 in the Sunderland Herald, based on the report of two English doctors, Barry and Russell, who had seen for themselves the ravages of the disease in St. Petersburg. He read:

Early symptoms are giddiness, sick stomach, slow pulse and cramp at the tops of fingers and toes. This is followed by vomiting or purging of a liquid like rice-water . . . the face becomes sharp and shrunken, the eyes sink and look wild, the lips, face, neck, hands and feet, and the whole surface of the body is a leaden blue, purple, black. The tongue is always moist, often white and loaded but flabby and chilled like a piece of dead flesh. The respiration is often quick but irregular. Urine is stopped. All means to restore the warmth of the body should be tried without delay. Poultices of mustard to the stomach. Twenty to forty drops of laudanum may be given. No remedy of this disease has been discovered, nor has any cure been sufficiently successful to recommend its use, but the greatest confidence may be expressed in the intelligence and enthusiasm of the doctors of this country, who will surely find a method of cure.

Cholera was bred in water, dirty water, water with feces, water with urine, water with sweat, water with tears, water with blood and mucus floating in it. Cholera was fond of sewage and clung to the lumps of obscure matter that floated and sank, that rose and bobbed with the flow of the thing, invisible to the human eye. Cholera was a water baby, a water flower. It hid in the water. It fed in the water. It bred in the water. Its brief days were wet and its purpose, to make more of itself, fulfilled in streams of water, in bubbles of water, in droplets of water, in foam and mud. It clung to moisture as naturally as man clings to air.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss Este’s relationship to her physical appearance. Why does she seem to derive comfort from seeing her own face in the mirror? What is reassuring to her about seeing her reflection? Do you notice this preoccupation change during the course of the book?

2. Discuss Este’s relationship to her physical appearance. Why does she seem to derive comfort from seeing her own face in the mirror? What is reassuring to her about seeing her reflection? Do you notice this preoccupation change during the course of the book?

3. Dr. Malina from time to time reflects on empirical experience as a somewhat unreliable guide–for instance, when he realizes that Este will not protest her engagement to Albert, despite what he expects (“only” because of “experience”). However, it doesn’t seem that Este has given him cause to expect otherwise. What experience is he referring to? Do you think he is in touch with who his daughter really is?

4. Marcus seems to become unreliable quickly in Alexandria, his loyalty and value as an assistant questionable at best. Why do you think Pasteur thought highly enough of him to insist that he accompany the mission? Do you think Marcus behaved differently in Paris? Why or why not?

5. Why does Ahmed swindle Albert even as he acknowledges the value of having a bank employee in his debt? Do you think this is a deliberate decision, or the result of greed overruling judgment?

6. Why do Marcus and Eric find friendship with each other so quickly? Do you think their business partnership will be a success? Why or why not?

7. Eric Fortman has been employed as an overseer for the transport of Scotch, an inspector for an Alexandrian importer, and a spy for the British authorities–and doesn’t show a particular talent for any of the above. Still, he clearly thinks of himself as a clever salesman and an asset to his employers. How does he justify this high opinion of himself? Do you think it is warranted?

8. What do you think of Este’s friend Phoebe? Do you think she deliberately misguides Este toward marrying Albert, or is she innocently optimistic and simply foolish in her judgment? Why do you think she disappears from the story after Este and Albert’s engagement is broken off?

9. Discuss the characters’ relationship with material things–from the loss of cargo at the beginning of the book, to the servants’ decisions to leave or take the Malinas’ treasures, to Este’s final packing priorities at her Alexandria home. How does each character’s relationship to worldly goods help define him or her?

10. How do you think Este and Louis’s story would have ended had he remained healthy and joined her on the Romulus? Would Dr. Malina have accepted him under the family’s new circumstances?

11. The cholera microbe is referred to numerous times as “amoral.” Why does the author choose to use and repeat this word? What is the role of morality in the book in general?

12. Do you think the story has a moral? If so, how would you describe it?

13. Discuss Pasteur’s role in the story. How important is he as a character, or figurehead, or even a kind of stand-in deity for the French scientists? What does his distant presence in the book add to the story, if anything?

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