A dead body floating by a pier. An elderly woman curled up on a bed in a department store. A psychiatrist searching for her own identity. These are the pieces of the puzzle that, in John Sedgwick's masterful novel of psychological suspense, begin to come into focus when Madeline Bemis is referred to the treatment of Dr. Alice Matthews at Montrose Psychiatric Hospital.
Mrs. Bemis's treatment gradually peels back the layers of a disturbing past whose shameful secrets and hidden sorrows stem from the war years of the 1940s—and reveals an unexpected link to the floating corpse. Mrs. Bemis's awakening sparks an intimacy between the two women that goes beyond an ordinary doctor/patient relationship—but also makes it clear that Mrs. Bemis's recovery, and perhaps even her safety, depends on quickly coming to terms with her secret history.
About the Author
John Sedgwick is the author of the novels The Dark House and The Education of Mrs. Bemis, and contributes regularly to Newsweek, GQ, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
She was in Filene's downtown, trying to decide about bath towels. The ones she'd had since college like the silly, "Welcome to Disneyland" beach towel sent to her by her older sister the travel agent and the plush one an ex-boyfriend had lifted from the Four Seasons didn't seem quite right anymore. But which did? She stood before a long wall of towels in every possible color and texture, each variation fraught, no doubt, with psychosocial significance. Should she go for midsize or full? Burgundy? Chartreuse? Mist gray? And would four be enough? Her new love, Ethan, slept over fairly often these days, and her new living room sofa pulled out to accommodate other visitors. All these decisions.
Alice looked considerably younger than twenty-eight. Girlish, from most angles, with a shy smile, blue eyes that people were always commenting on, and an endearing softness to her cheeks; she wore her hair down to her shoulders in a simple cut. Alice was a first-year psychiatric resident at Montrose Psychiatric Hospital, the distinguished, Harvard-affiliated institution to the west of Boston, in Concord, but, to her distress, people still sometimes took her for a teenage candy striper. Nevertheless, she was Doctor Matthews now, so she had to think more about appearances.
Dr. Matthews. In truth, that still seemed to her like somebody else, somebody more substantial. But, having finally secured a legitimate, paying job after four years of medical school, and another for an internship, she'd upgraded her apartment, moving out ofher med-student studio in a litter-strewn section of the Fenway and into a reasonably nice single-bedroom along a tree-lined street in North Cambridge, by the Somerville line. Not that big, but it was just her and Fido, the mouse she'd saved after a psychology experiment at BU. Now she needed towels.
"We have the Chantelles, ourselves," the saleswoman, Frankie, was saying. She'd let Alice know she was due in September. "They're very popular."
Alice ran a finger through the deep plush of the chartreuse Chantelle. She wasn't sure that she wanted "popular." And what did towels...mean? Alice caught herself pondering the emotional implications of comfort, warmth, dryness.
In the end, she settled on the Arbor House ones, simply because she loved the luxurious feel of them against her cheek, in a "serenity blue" that she hoped would go with the bathroom tiles. A set of four, with washcloths and hand towels to match. She was toting her purchase past the sleepware section, toward the exit, when she sensed a sudden shift in the mood of some of the shoppers around her. They were staring back toward the bedding department. Alice slowed. Had someone been caught shoplifting?
Behind her, a woman's voice rose over the general bustle of the floor: "She all right?"
Finally, Alice got a clear view of the four-poster bed around which a few onlookers were frozen in orbit. It seemed at first that there was only a heap of blue fabric in the middle, nothing more. But then she realized that the "heap" was in fact a person. An older, gray-haired woman in a blue skirt, curled up on her side looking for a moment like the Grand, Alice's grandmother at the nursing home back in Latrobe. She lay like that sometimes on Alice's visits, her mind floating off somewhere while Alice read to her from Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz the stories that the Grand had read Alice as a child. Was this woman's mind gone, too? Her stillness was disturbing, especially in a place like Filene's, which was normally nothing but movement, as shoppers surged about, bent on their purchases. The woman was alive Alice could see that much. A street person, sleeping one off? A possibility, but this woman seemed too well dressed for that. A bit of jewelry glittered on one ear.
"Call security, would you?" someone said. "Tell 'em we've got a medical situation here."
Alice approached, steeled herself. "I'm a doctor," she said quietly. "Can I help in some way?"
It was Frankie, her saleswoman, her enormous abdomen protruding. "Wait, a doctor?" She gave a relieved smile. "That's great. Oh, thank you."
"A psychiatrist, actually. But I'm an M.D."
"Well, maybe you should take a look," Frankie said. "She's kinda..." She beckoned Alice over to the bed where the woman lay on her side. The few shoppers who had gathered around stepped back. Alice stepped around to face the woman, aware of the mild buzzing of some wall clocks behind her. The woman wasn't quite as old as the Grand. Seventy, maybe seventy-five. Her gray hair was streaked with white; she wore it in a tight bun. Besides her blue suit, she had on a frilly white shirt, dark stockings, and old-fashioned, black shoes. She might have come from church. Was she praying? Her knees were drawn up nearly to her chest, her hands curled lightly around her shins, just below her knees, to pull her body into a protective egg. She seemed to have been overcome by something, but what? Her eyes were wide open, and she was whimpering faintly.
Alice crouched down next to the woman, who stared out blankly. "Ma'am?" Alice asked. "I'm Dr. Matthews. Are you all right?"
The woman didn't answer, but continued to stare.
"A customer noticed her like that a few minutes ago," someone told Alice. "Hasn't budged, so far as I know."
"Ever see her before?" Alice asked.
"Nope. Haven't a clue where she came from, either. Just boom, there she was."
The woman wasn't prostrate and quivering like the stroke victims Alice had seen. Also, there seemed to be some strength in the arms curled about the woman's legs, and there was no evidence of the asymmetry Alice had been...
The Education of Mrs. Bemis. Copyright © by John Sedgwick. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Reading Group Guide
"A triumph. Both a riveting portrait of the secret life of Boston's upper classes...and a moving tale about the unexpected relationship between two women who would seem to have nothing in common. A dream of a book by a terrific author."
- Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides
The patient is a 76-year old widowed white woman with a history of depression...referred by Gerald Faulkes, M.D., of the Boston City Hospital (BCH) emergency room where she was taken after being found completely disoriented in a Boston department store...Patient agreed to be brought to Montrose for diagnosis and treatment. "I have failed everyone and now I'm failing myself."
Who is Mrs. Bemis? What happened to her? Can she be cured? And what does she have to do with a drowned man who is found after his body bumps against a skinny-dipping college student? These questions haunt fledgling psychiatrist Dr. Alice Matthews, who is about to break all the rules to try to cure the nearly catatonic Boston matron in John Sedgwick's riveting portrayal of two women-and their "education."
Dr. Alice Matthews is the newest and youngest staff member at the once prestigious Montrose Psychiatric Hospital. A mistake in judgment regarding a suicidal patient has shaken her confidence, so the case of Mrs. Madeline Bemis is more than a challenge. It might make or break her career. Determined to get through to the uncommunicative old lady, she begins to investigate Mrs. Bemis outside of the therapeutic setting. With the help of a local police detective, she follows a twisted trail that leads back in time to the World War IIera, a woman's tragic choices, and perhaps to a contemporary case of murder.
As for Mrs. Bemis herself, once a beautiful Boston debutante, she has kept her secrets for over fifty years. Now, her memories reveal a chilling set of circumstances that have prompted more than one breakdown. Can an untested doctor really cure a lifetime of mental illness? Or will Dr. Matthew's approach lead to Mrs. Bemis's irrevocable retreat into the darkness of her own mind?
A combination of riveting psychological thriller and fine literary fiction with a Jamesean sensibility, John Sedgwick's unforgettable novel bridges half a century and two women's lives. In it, the fates of Madeline Bemis and Alice Matthews are interwoven as they enter into a relationship as patient and doctor...and ultimately as two friends. The drowned man at the center of the mystery is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of a lifetime of psychological distress by a woman out of touch with her feelings. And what ultimately happens to Mrs. Bemis in Sedgwick's powerful, uplifting work becomes a shining testament to compassion and the ability of the heart to heal.
Questions for Discussion
- What does the title of the book mean? Consider that Mrs. Madeline Bemis says, about her time in the home for unwed mothers in Golden, Colorado: "It was my college, my graduate school. I earned a Ph.D. in misery. Saw it, felt it, ate it, slept it. A useful thing to know in this world, I suppose. All the suffering in it." (p. 324). Is this the key to the title? Why is a knowledge of suffering useful? (It might be interesting to consider here that in Buddhism, the Buddha said, "All I teach is suffering and its end.")
- What would you say is "The Education of Alice Matthews"?
- There are some dandy villains in this story. Who would you choose as the most villainous? If personal growth comes from our encounters with difficulties, how do the story's villains push both Mrs. Bemis and Dr. Alice Matthews to change?
- The author bases his depiction of Mrs. Bemis's depression partly on Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery. What was Mrs. Bemis's trauma? What circumstances contributed to her depression? Why do you think keeping secrets is so harmful, and revealing them so cathartic?
- It is said, "The rich are different." How does Mrs. Bemis's social class make her different? In what ways, do you think, did her social status and wealth help or hurt her?
- Why is Alice Matthews so drawn to Mrs. Bemis? She herself tries to answer this question, so you might what to look at what she says, and then think about what she doesn't say.
- In this story, women badly misjudge the men they choose. Why do you think they made such poor choices? Do you think Alice Matthews has a future with Detective Frank LeBeau, i.e., is he a better choice?
- The author says in his "A Note on Psychiatry" at the end of the book: "As Irvin D. Yalom makes clear, the psychiatric effort is not solely the patient's journey, but the psychiatrist's as well." Dr. Matthews clearly represents Yalom's point of view. What are the opposing ones, represented by the other psychiatrists in the novel? What are the risks, as well as the obvious rewards, of Yalom's approach?
- Discuss Brendan Hurley. How would you solve the mystery of his death? Look at Mrs. Bemis from his perspective. How does his perception differ from her own? What does she contribute to his tragic life?
- Since Mrs. Bemis's mother also spent time in the Montrose Psychiatric Hospital, do you think Mrs. Bemis's mental problems were hereditary, learned behavior, or both?
- Why doesn't Mrs. Bemis contact her real son? How would you evaluate her mental health at the novel's end?
About the Author John Sedgwick writes regularly for GQ, Worth, and other magazines. He is the author of the acclaimed novel The Dark House and is a member of the distinguished Massachusetts Sedgwick family. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
John Sedgwick writes regularly for GQ, Worth, and other magazines. He is the author of the acclaimed novel The Dark House and is a member of the distinguished Massachusetts Sedgwick family. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mrs. Bemis was completely predictable, but very enjoyable to read. No surprises, but very lovingly crafted characters that I cared about and worried over during the book. It's labeled a psychological thriller, but it isn't. It lacks tautness. But it more than makes up for it with excellent character studies of Madeline and Alice. Very well done and a nice, gentle, nostalgic read. Warm humanity and frailty radiates from the book and I just felt better about life and circumstances by reading it.