Book reviews

Fiorella De Maria’s Do No Harm: A Novel (Ignatius, 2013)

Fiorella de Maria has written an exemplary novel for those who simply enjoy good fiction which has something significant to say about contemporary life.  The characters are credible.  The plot is thrilling.  In terms of production, the book itself is of sufficient length, and the font is easy to read.

However, these are the usual bits of praise that can be given to any work of fiction.  What makes this novel exemplary are the themes of concern to contemporary Catholics: the attack on a well-meaning physician who chose to assist someone instead of let her die, the hostility which he and a member of his legal team experience, the thought that all is not well in the world of British justice, and the effects of a life-denying law on society—this last item satisfying the principle that fiction should communicate something important.

First, though, the customary criteria for evaluating a novel should be developed further.  Every character is complex and not a cardboard creation; this is true of both major and minor characters.  Dr. Matthew Kemble is not simply a do-gooder who saves the life of a young woman brought into his hospital emergency room for care, despite her having a living will which would have precluded any medical intervention.  He is an emotional wreck at times and even wonders whether it would have been better not to have been involved at all in such a complex case.  The delightfully hyperactive Maria, who, as a solicitor-in-training, is the equivalent in the American system of a paralegal, is a faithful young Catholic and passionate about her cases, yet she just does not know when to follow orders from her boss, Jonathan Kirkpatrick, Dr. Kemble’s friend and solicitor.

Similarly, minor characters display a depth which makes them utterly credible and ordinary human beings.  For example, Freya, Jonathan’s wife, is a devoted, traditional spouse who seems to enjoy puttering about her home doing the simple tasks of entertaining Jonathan’s friends.  Even she, however, displays her helplessness being involved with persons handling a controversial legal case frightening to her sense of British order.  Expressing sympathy in a discussion of the emotions generated by the case, Freya says, “’I understand.’  I don’t understand at all, thought Freyda miserably, carrying the weight of a blissfully sheltered life on her shoulders” (212).  Such honest characterization occurs throughout the novel, and the contemporary reader would greatly appreciate a cast of fictional characters able to express contrary or conflicting emotions.

Much more compelling is the pace of the narrative.  The four steps of plot development race from the exposition to the various crises to a spell-binding climax, which leads to a satisfying denouement.  How does one prolong over the span of 233 pages a relatively minor legal matter of one doctor accused of assault and battery for having treated a person who has a living will expressly forbidding such care?  De Maria does so exceedingly well, punctuating the narrative with unexpected, yet necessary episodes of violence for character development.  For example, the “explosion” of a brick being thrown through Dr. Kemble’s window on pages 124-125 and the brutal physical attack on Maria on pages 146-147 illustrate the degree to which those hostile to a life-affirming perspective would go to attempt to stop those who support life.  These scenes also allow the author to demonstrate her fine ability to create dramatic tension, which culminates with the jury’s decision:

“Members of the jury, do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty of assault and battery?”

Matthew was aware of time slowing down the way it was said to do in the final moments of life.  He tasted bile at the back of his throat and felt the hot, dizzying sense of unadulterated terror overtaking him.  He looked fixedly at the foreman.  (222)

An ordinary writer would simply follow the judge’s interrogative with the customary “Guilty” or “Not guilty” response.  In the hands of a master writer like De Maria, the dramatic tension is prolonged further for the reader’s enjoyment.  (What is the jury’s decision?  This will not be a “spoiler alert”; read the novel.)

Finally, the novel addresses important problems for our time.  Since anti-life forces succeeded in the late twentieth century in overthrowing the legal protection of the first civil right to life of the unborn, the handicapped newborn, and the elderly, the twenty-first century must face the continuing assault by those who think there is something called a “right to die.”  De Maria’s philosophical premise is sound.  Life-denying forces will not simply be satisfied with their attacks on human life; they want to force pro-lifers to assist in the killing and resent those who obstruct their plans to have death as the oxymoronic cornerstone of human life.  Dr. Kemble is a fictional version of any life-affirming person who does not do their bidding.  He is attacked and, like millions of other pro-life persons, suffers emotionally at their hands.  The injustice of the attack against a well-meaning, life-affirming doctor should inspire all of us to support our own and to fight back.  It is imperative that we do so, for the dignity of human life, especially life full of pain and suffering, hangs in the balance.

One hopes that De Maria will publish more novels using this cast of characters; they form a nucleus of vibrant personalities worthy of a series of films, if not a weekly television show.  Moreover, expanding certain ideas suggested in this novel would delight De Maria’s followers.  For example, will Kirkpatrick and his legal team assist others under attack by life-denying forces?  Will the charming affection between Maria and Rick develop into a full-fledged orthodox Catholic romance?  De Maria should follow up her success with Do No Harm by writing novels to answer questions like these for her growing fan base.

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