THE MERCY RULE by Perri Klass (Houghton Mifflin, July, 2008)
Review by Nancy Yanes-Hoffman, THE WRITING DOCTOR, at www.writingdoctor.typepad.com, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, 585-385-1515
16 San Rafael Drive, Rochester NY 14618
Can women do it all? Perri Klass, the multitasking pediatrician-writer and author of THE MERCY RULE (Houghton Mifflin, July, 2008), seems to manage it. But Dr Lucy Weiss, Klass's alter ego and central character, seems less sure what she can and cannot do. As for me, I wonder what Klass is trying to say about how well working women can fulfill their responsibilities to family and patients—or whether they risk losing themselves along the way.
Rereading THE MERCY RULE, I’m still not sure where I stand. My daughter objects to Klass, arguing that she is smug, that her tone implies that yes, certain women can do it all. But Lucy has so many balls in the air that she finally becomes partially disconnected from her family, from the lost women she works with in her job, and even from herself.
With THE MERCY RULE, form follows function. Honing in on the complications of balancing the demands of the medical profession with the equally (even more?) demanding profession of being as good a parent--and a wife-- as possible, THE MERCY RULE feels more like a group short story than a novel.
The title asks questions that it does not answer. For the benefit of the non-cognoscenti like me, Wikipedia defines the “mercy rule” as a sports expression, also known as the slaughter rule. The mercy rule ends the game “when one team has a very large and presumably insurmountable lead over the other.” It quits when the team is ahead. In the Little League where Freddy, Lucy’s odd, mathematically sharp and socially inadept son, plays, the coach calls the game because of the Mercy Rule. A billionaire father, out to have his son outplay the boys, protests, “In life, there are no Mercy Rules.” Although she believes that “life is full of Mercy Rules, and I follow them as much as I can,” she doesn’t say a word to the obnoxious billionaire.
Once a foster child going from hand to mouth and foster home to foster home, Lucy was saved when her beloved sixth grade teacher adopted her. Lucy Weiss is then a survivor, a pediatrician running a Boston clinic for neglected children and their forgetful, abandoning mothers. The stories are about judging parents and children, figuring out what parents and outsiders can do to make children’s lives better.
Although Lucy attempts to balance her family life with her professional job, she suffers from a lack of focus, most disturbingly in the last section where the narrative voice changes and speaks dizzyingly to the reader:
“If you are in any kind of trouble, call me,” concludes the unidentified narrator, ostensibly speaking for Lucy. “Find a way to call me. Call me from anywhere…I want to know we are connected. I will always answer…always hear…always come. Look what the phones can do, nowadays. Look how that can change the story. And the right connection at the right moment is all it takes.”
But cell phones don’t always work. Connections falter. As a result, even though Lucy’s group short story might make an interesting selection for a book club, it gets a little lost on the road. Finally, we don’t know where we –or Lucy—can go from here.
Klass's Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor considers the struggle between medicine and family more clearly than this novel and leaves the reader with much more to think about. It would be a good place for Lucy to go next.