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Posted on 17 Oct 2023 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

FIONA SUSSMAN The Doctor’s Wife. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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Fiona Sussman’s fifth novel pieces together a suspicious death, a fatal illness and erratic behaviour within a group of lifelong friends.

Carmen Andino, Tibbie Lamb and Tibbie’s husband Austin have been friends since school. Austin and Tibbie got together, and Austin became a popular general practitioner; Carmen met and married Stan. The four eventually blended into a tight group of friends – not perfect, but close.

Over the years the four had shared some significant milestones and traumas. Austin had safely delivered the Andino twins, recognised the mole on Carmen’s thigh for what it was, and stitched Stan’s hand back together when he almost took off his thumb with the hedge trimmer. And Carmen and Stan had been there for Austin after he missed out on selection for the Plastic Surgery training scheme. Not that he’d been too devastated; just a timing thing, really. In retrospect, General Practice proved very fulfilling.

Carmen had also been a huge support to Tibbie when she spiralled into depression after her brother Angus died from an overdose.

Naturally Stan turns to Austin when Carmen’s behaviour becomes very erratic – mood swings, and something else he doesn’t confess up front.

Stan’s eyes narrowed. His wife was naked, except for his black barbecuing apron.

Every minute detail of the scene registered on his retinas, like some all-seeing eye. The bucket of silvered foam. The industrial-size bottle of bleach, cap askew. The carpet disfigured by large, pale pockmarks. Carmen’s pendulous breasts escaping from behind the black fabric. The kidney-shaped sponge he kept for cleaning the car, in her rubber-gloved hand. A dead moth upended on the windowsill. The cat backed into a corner.

A week later, a CT scan confirms that Carmen has brain tumours. Months later, the body of Tibbie Lamb (the discovery of which is referred to in the opening chapter) is found at the bottom of the Browns Bay cliffs, and everyone, including Stan, starts to really wonder about Carmen’s behaviour.

The plot of The Doctor’s Wife is very reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle, with lots of pieces initially scattered about the place, the full picture only becoming visible as the edges are matched up. Austin Lamb is a wonderful support for Stan and Carmen, even as he mourns the death of his wife. But the picture that emerges is one of a lot of very complex, very damaged people.

The story is told from the varying viewpoints of the main characters, chapter by chapter, with input from Eliot Bard, who found Tibbie’s body; his mother Andrea; and the main investigator of Tibbie’s death, Detective Ramesh Bandara. Eliot is also a patient of Austin’s, a young man with a complex medical history of his own.

Eliot had learning difficulties in some areas, while exhibiting extraordinary ability in others. He was overly trusting and gullible at times, yet also displayed remarkable empathy and insight beyond his years. He was obsessed with horses, treasure and auburn-haired women, believed in superpowers, and engaged in a series of daily rituals to keep calm. Yet he also astounded [Andrea] with his common sense and practical approach to life. He was unaware of his strength and unwittingly broke things, but he had a huge heart and would never intentionally hurt a flea.

About now, you’d be well within your rights to wonder where all this is heading. The Doctor’s Wife throws up a lot of questions and problematic moments, starting out with whether Tibbie’s death was murder or an accident. Was Carmen involved in some way? And if she was, can she ever be held responsible with the brain tumours destroying her cognitive capacity? Is Stan going to cope with caring for his desperately ill wife? And how will he and their sons react to her inevitable death, to say nothing of the taint of murderer that may stay with her? What’s with the financial connection between Tibbie and Stan that the investigators discover? How will Austin move on from the death of his wife, and the inevitable death of his long-time friend? More importantly, is everything as above board with him as it seems?

Along the way you have a novel that deals with the trauma of losing loved ones – unexpectedly and inevitably, and what happens to those left behind. You also have something that looks closely at the stress involved in caring for loved ones – those obviously terminally ill, as Carmen is, and those who are battling lifelong, but not necessarily fatal issues, as Eliot is.

Sussman is more than capable of exploring complex human failings with compassion and clarity, and also has a deft hand at building good and bad connections. At the centre of these connections are friends, community members, patients, witnesses and potential suspects. Much of the clarity for investigators comes from Eliot, whose powers of observation and recall make him part catalyst, part astute observer. All of this happens as the picture becomes murkier and more complicated, and laying the blame for Tibbie’s death on the confused, ill, and eventually dead Carmen starts to feel overly convenient, especially for a couple of investigators with plenty of issues of their own, and a nose for the not-quite-right.

In the end, it comes down to damage, consequences and family relationships. There are plenty of touching moments in The Doctor’s Wife that compensate in small ways for the loss of Carmen and Tibbie. Stan’s relationship with his sons and Andrea and Eliot’s connection provide light in what is sometimes a dark, but absolutely fascinating, portrayal of human behaviour. 

Fiona Sussman The Doctor’s Wife Bateman Books 2022 PB 304pp $37.95

Karen Chisholm blogs from, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy The Doctor’s Wife from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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