The Doctor's Wife is the best known novel of Sawako Ariyoshi (Japan, 1931 to 1984). She is among the highest regarded female authors to emerge in Japan after WWII. She graduated from college in 1952. Her area of concentration was the preforming arts with a special interest in Kubuki theater. After graduation she went to work for a publishing house and began to contribute articles to literary journals. In 1959 she received a Rockefeller Grant to study preforming arts for a year at Sarah Lawrence College in the USA. By 1968 she was able to devote her full efforts to writing novels, short stories and essays. She never married or had children and died peacefully in her sleep in 1984.
The Doctor's Wife centers on the life long conflict of the mother and the wife of Doctor Hanaoska Seishu (1760 to 1835) who was the first modern doctor to preform breast surgery using anesthetics. In this era of Japanese life the leading male figure in a household was dominant over all others. Ariyoshi does a very good job in detailing for us the conflicts of the wife and mother-in-law of the household. She portrays well their very long lasting feelings of mutual dislike and near hatred.
I found the depiction of medical practice in Japan in the early 19th century fascinating. We get to see exactly how the business end of medical practice worked then and we see the procedures also. The medical focus of the novel is on breast cancer. At this time there was no way to operate on a woman with breast cancer without killing her. Dr. Seishu had been experimenting for a long time on animals in order to find a way to preform pain free surgery. He made use of various mixtures of herbs and modern chemicals and had succeeded on animals numerous times. He needed to try his procedures on a human subject. The nature of the character of the mother in law and the wife come out wonderfully when we see them both demanding to be the first human test subject. Ariyoshi takes us deeply into the dynamics of the household relationships. The events that follow are really quite exciting and I will relay no more of the plot of this wonderful book.
I think what I enjoyed most about this book was seeing how medical practice worked in Japan in the early 19th century. A doctor's office was for sure a family business. The relationships between the two women was very well done and we get a feel for the marriage also, though this might be underdeveloped.
I recommend The Doctor's Wife very highly. There is a very subtle intelligence in this book. I will soon read and post on another of her novels The River Ki.