The Spirit of the Place

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Samuel Shem's novel about medical internship, THE HOUSE OF GOD, is a classic, noted in The Lancet as one of the two most significant American novels of the 20th century, praised by John Updike. It has sold millions of copies and is required reading in medical schools throughout the world. It, MOUNT MISERY, and FINE are celebrated for their authentic description of medical training and practice, for their dazzling, Rabelaisian comedy, and for their humanism and vision. THE SPIRIT OF THE PLACE is Shem's most ...
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The Spirit of the Place

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Samuel Shem's novel about medical internship, THE HOUSE OF GOD, is a classic, noted in The Lancet as one of the two most significant American novels of the 20th century, praised by John Updike. It has sold millions of copies and is required reading in medical schools throughout the world. It, MOUNT MISERY, and FINE are celebrated for their authentic description of medical training and practice, for their dazzling, Rabelaisian comedy, and for their humanism and vision. THE SPIRIT OF THE PLACE is Shem's most ambitious work yet. It goes beyond a focus on young doctors-in-training to that of a world-traveled doctor called home to become the doctor to the small town he ran from, 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.

After a divorce and a year of wandering the world with "Doctors Without Borders," Orville Rose has settled into a new love with an Italian Buddhist teacher, Celestina Polo. A telegram informs him that his mother has died. He returns to Columbia, "a Hudson River town plagued by breakage", and is startled by his mother's will: she has left him an enormous sum of money and her historic home. There is a catch: he must live in her house on the Courthouse Square continuously for a year and thirteen days. But Orville desperately wants to return to Europe and Celestina.

As he struggles with his decision, he re-connects with the man who had been his surrogate father, Bill Starbuck-the kind of small town doctor now extinct. Bill's dusty office features a prominent 'YES SMOKING' sign and a cache of his home remedy '"Starbusol." Bill treats theworking poor, people that the medical and insurance industry have shut out. Now in his seventies, Bill needs a break, and talks Orville into helping out. He takes over Bill's practice and plunges into the grim realities of American life-as perhaps only doctors are subjected to with such grinding regularity: "Alcohol and violence. Murder as grisly as Angola. Malnutrition as bad as the Third World. A cornucopia of drugs. Epidemic smoking and obesity."

"History" is one of the central themes of the novel, elaborated in a romance between Orville and a remarkable young mother, Miranda Braak, who aspires to be the Columbian historian. Her deep knowledge of the past challenges Orville to get perspective on his present crisis; her love and integrity challenge him to grow. In a story told with the ineffable "Shem-humor", pointed insight and drama, Orville faces his patients, his past friends and demons, and the floating presence of his dead mother, learning to be a 'healer' and a part of 'the spirit of the place.'

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 at a crucial period of American history. This is truly a great novel.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The latest novel from Shem (The House of God) is the funny and wrenching account of Dr. Orville Rose's return to his hometown, Columbia, N.Y., after the death of his mother in 1983. Orville's mother's will states that he will receive nearly a million dollars, the family house and a luxury car if he stays and works in Columbia for a year and 13 days. At first he is appalled, but he eventually decides to stay, working with local doctor Bill Starbuck. As he tends to the sick and injured, Orville falls in love with local historian Miranda Braak, becomes acquainted with the locals' careless mean-spiritedness (it's so pervasive that Miranda is working on a thesis called "The Columbian Spirit"), observes a townwide battle over whether to save a grand old hotel and receives ghostly visits from his antagonistic mother. It's hard to put down the book as Orville must decide, once the required stay reaches its end, whether to remain or flee with his newfound wealth. Shem deftly comments on the Wal-Mart-ization of smalltown America while entertaining the reader. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425258781
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/4/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 718,816
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Samuel Shem is a doctor, novelist, playwright and activist. A Rhodes Scholar, he was on the faculty of Harvard Medical School for three decades. Shem has been described in the press as “easily the finest and most important writer ever on to focus on the lives of doctors and the world of medicine,” and it has been said that “he brings mercy to the practice of medicine.” The Lancet called his first book, The House of God, “one of the two most significant medical novels of the twentieth century.”  Its sequel, Mount Misery, is about training to be a psychiatrist; Fine is about a psychoanalyst.
His 2008 novel, The Spirit of the Place, about a primary care doctor in a small town, was reviewed as “The perfect bookend to The House of God.” It won the 2008 Best Book Award in General Fiction and Literature from USA Book News and the Independent Publishers National Book Award in Literary Fiction in 2009.
With his wife, Janet Surrey, he wrote the Off-Broadway hit play Bill W. and Dr. Bob, about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, which won the Performing Arts Award of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in 2007, and the nonfiction book We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men, winner of the 1999 Boston Interfaith Council’s Paradigm Shift Award. He has given over fifty commencement speeches on “How to Stay Human in Medicine.”

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted December 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    As a very young boy, Orville Rose senses that he is "a part

    As a very young boy, Orville Rose senses that he is "a part of something else," a joyous cry that his mother quickly quashes with the stern response, "This is all there is." Orville runs to his room in tears and basically spends the rest of his life running away.

    Now after he has served overseas as a Doctor Without Borders and seen all there is to see of suffering, disease, murder and more, he has fallen in love with an Italian woman, Celestina. His tranquility is shattered upon receiving a telegram that his mother died and it is two weeks after her death that he arrives at Columbia, a small town bordering the Hudson River in upstate New York. His mother has stymied her son Orville in two ways: First she leaves him over a million dollars which he gets only after he has lived in Columbia for a year and thirteen days. Second, she has written letters to Orville which an unknown person is mailing, per her direction, to him, letters which are notes condemning Orville for his failure to care for her adequately which he initially takes as truth and proceeds to fulfill in reality.

    Orville falls in love again after Celestina dumps him for a rich man. As Orville is getting more and more disgusted with his hometown, he meets Miranda and her son Cray, who calls Orville "Orvy." Miranda is handicapped and after awhile Orville realizes how emotionally handicapped he is as well. No, this isn't a morbid book but one in which tragedy, irony, and comedy are always flowing, weaving together and insisting on their own separate, special scenes.

    In reality, the tendency for all material objects in Columbia to break parallels the brokenness of its citizens. They are blind to progress and what is best for one's own well-being and therefore tend to veto and despise everything new or modern. But it takes a whole novel for the diamond in the rough to emerge in both characters and the town in which they live.

    You will meet a selfless doctor, a childhood bully turned politician, a woman excelling in her physical beauty and teasing sexuality, a widow terrified to trust in love again, a boy in desperate need of a father, and more characters who immediately grip the reader's interest and don't let go.

    The Spirit of the Place is fine, literate contemporary fiction about love between a mother and son, son and lover, mentors and more! Wonderful, well-written story!

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