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)

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From the Publisher
"Samuel Shem captured the humor, the angst and pathos of medical training in that unforgettable book, The House of God. His new book is an incredible and heartfelt story of a physician whose life has taken the most unexpected twists and turns. The Spirit of the Place entertains, satisfies, and affirms; it is beautifully conceived and brilliantly executed. Shem has done it again!"--Abraham Verghese, M.D., author of Counting for Stone

"A deeply moving and profounding intelligent exploration of the complexities and rewards of family, profession and place. The story of a young physician returning to his small town becomes a tale with universal meaning. This book continues to resonate in the mind and heart long after it is read." --Jerome Groopman, M.D., author of How Doctors Think

"In this lovely novel, Samuel Shem brilliantly describes scenery from the Italian Lakes to the Hudson River Valley with vivid enchanting detail. But his real subject is the landscape of the human heart with its dangers and delights, its vertiginous cliffs and mossy woods, its comforts and contradictions. This is a wonderful book about the surprises of human connection and the infinite power of love." --Susan Cheever

"The Spirit of the Place is written with a large heart, a healing touch, wry and wise insight into the human condition. Worthy of the best of Samuel Shem, which is worthy indeed."--James Carrol

"[A] grand, wonderfully insightful story of love and death, mothers and sons, doctors and patients—filled with larger than life characters and told with outrageous Shem-humor and authentic humanity." --Michael Palmer, author of The First Patient

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780873389426
  • Publisher: Kent State University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2008
  • Series: Literature and Medicine Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Samuel Shem (pen-name of Stephen Bergman, M.D., Ph.D.) is a novelist, playwright, and for three decades a doctor on the Harvard Medical School faculty. His novels include: THE HOUSE OF GOD, which has sold over two million copies in thirty languages, FINE, and MOUNT MISERY, called "another medical classic." With his wife Janet Surrey he is the author of the hit Off Broadway play BILL W. AND DR. BOB, the story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (winner of the 2007 Performing Arts Award of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), the nonfiction book WE HAVE TO TALK, HEALING DIALOGUES BETWEEN WOMEN AND MEN (winner of the Paradigm Shift Award of the Boston Interfaith Counseling Service), and the curriculum MAKING CONNECTIONS: BUILDING GENDER DIALOGUE AND COMMUNITY IN SECONDARY SCHOOL. A 30th anniversary symposium-"Return to the House of God: Medical Education Revisited 1978-2008"-will be held at the Cleveland Clinic in October 2008, also published by Kent State University Press. Shem has been honored as one of Boston Public Library's "Literary Lights," as one of "Boston's Best Authors," and as a speaker at the Hemingway Centennial Celebration at the JFK Library. He has received the Vanderbilt University Medal of Merit, has given the commencement address at over fifty medical schools, has spoken all over the world on "How to Stay Human in Medicine," and has published a noted essay, "Fiction as Resistance."
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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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