Magnificent Obsession. Lloyd C. Douglas. 1929. 336 pages. [Source: Library]
First sentence: It had lately become common chatter at Brightwood Hospital--better known for three hundred miles around Detroit as Hudson's Clinic--that the chief was all but dead on his feet. The whole place buzzed with it.
Premise/plot: Two men--one supposedly a "saint" and the other a "sinner"--both in dire need of medical equipment to save their lives. The problem? Well, there's only one machine. The so-called "sinner," Robert (Bobby) Merrick is the one whose life is saved. For the record, I don't think a choice was deliberately made at any point by any medical staff to choose one over the other. It's just that the equipment/machine was currently being used to save Bobby's life WHEN Doctor Hudson (the so-called "saint") subsequently needed it. Everyone within three-hundred miles loathes Bobby Merrick for existing. If it wasn't for the likes of him, their precious, dear, beloved, incredibly saintly Dr. Hudson might still be here--working himself to death. The staff doesn't hide it--not even a little--and are downright hostile and cruel. So it's no surprise when Merrick develops a guilt complex and finds himself pledging to be a sinner no more. Off to medical school he'll go. He'll train to become a brain surgeon. He'll do EVERYTHING to fill the doctor's shoes. (No matter how weird or creepy).
Turns out that the doctor had a gnostic/mystical new-age-y obsessive philosophy about how to live life. He wrote all about it in a journal--in code that would have to be deciphered. For better or worse, Bobby Merrick is able to decipher the code and, you guessed it, Hudson's obsession is transferred completely to Merrick.
My thoughts: How to describe this one? Weird? Creepy? Odd? Disappointing? Those might be my own descriptions. But they wouldn't be objective descriptions. I am trying to untangle how much of my reaction is tied into the incredibly horrible theology, and how much is tied into the plot and characterization. Because obviously, not every single reader is going to find the religious content objectionable, or, perhaps better phrased as objectionable for the exact same reasons. Two readers could agree that the religious aspects made a mess of this novel, but, disagree as to how and why.
I'll start with something that I think is more objective and still slightly creepy. In Bobby Merrick's need to "take the place of Dr. Hudson," that includes the need to be a FATHER to his daughter and a HUSBAND to his wife. In other words, in addition to wanting to become a surgeon so he could potentially save the lives Dr. Hudson might have saved had he lived longer, he wants to step in as FATHER and HUSBAND to Hudson's family. The romance didn't feel organic--in my humble opinion. It was predictable, tacky, slightly weird.
Bobby Merrick, when first introduced, is not in the slightest religious or spiritual. He would never in a million years call himself a Christian. (By the end of the book, he still has hesitations as to the label Christian.) Through reading Hudson's notes, he takes an interest in the New Testament and the Galilean. He realizes that for almost two thousand years, people have been missing the point totally and completely. The New Testament is a methodical, formulaic equation. If you DO a + b + c, then the Major Personality (Merrick refuses to label him God) will follow through with blessing you x + y + z. It isn't so much about the next life, eternal life, or believing and trusting in you-know-who. It is all about what you can get out of this life in the here and now. How a person can "work the system" "stack the deck" do everything just so that everything always, always, always goes your way. Any faith you might have as a result of reading the New Testament, is faith in your faith. He is so excited that he's figured out a way to make religion work for him--and cut the Major Personality almost out altogether--that he's eager to go forth and proselytize. He even convinces a pastor. (To be fair, the pastor at best was an agnostic going through the motions who didn't believe in God all that much but he didn't want to shock the old people in his congregation too much, too fast.) Merrick ridicules the "old time religion" throughout. In particular, he ridicules DEVOTION, adoration, any touch of sentimentality that would have people praising and worshiping God. The Bible to Merrick is just like an algebra book.
Obviously, as I mentioned, I have personal objections to this type of religious book. I don't expect any other reader to agree. But I do think that so much of this book is taken up in being didactic. And NOT in a way that is clear, logical, reasonable. I found the writing to be vague, mystical, and CONFUSING as all get out. His religious catch-phrases were so foreign to me personally. But he was big into personality implanting and sending out your personality? And something about how your personality is connected with others so that when someone dies part of your personality (soul?????) dies as well? Anyway, I truly think half the book is gibberish at best. I'm labeling it as gnostic/mystic/new-age-y simply because of the whole "I've-got-a-secret" aspect of it. Also it borders on the idea of wealth-prosperity-gospel teaching. But it doesn't fit exactly.
What you are left with at the end of the day is philosophizing and a sloppily thrown together romance.
Plus, as a modern reader I am curious about what brain surgeons would have been able to do--the kinds of things they could treat, the surgeries performed, the outcomes of their patients--in the 1920s when this book was both written and set. But the book is about anything but actual medicine or medical practices. I am not sure how long it would have taken for someone to go to medical school and become a brain surgeon, but it takes Bobby Merrick three years to become a brain surgeon and take Doctor Hudson's place at the hospital.
© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
What an unusual premise!
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