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by Carol Cassella
Simon & Schuster, July 2008
288 pages
ISBN: 1416556109

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

When I think about members of the medical profession, I mostly consider their technical skills and bedside manner. As far as their motivation for choosing this type of career, I mostly assume that they are looking for financial security and perhaps have some sense of doing good for others. I never really thought about how deep those feelings could be until I read this book. The lead character, Dr. Marie Heaton, is an anesthesiologist who feels that she builds a private world with her patients. Before the procedure, she meets with patients and their families and does everything that she can to calm them and make them believe that they are going to be safe. She turns a very frightening experience into something totally non-threatening.

And that's exactly what she's done for 8-year-old Jolene Jansen and her single mother, Bobbie. Jolene is mildly retarded, but her medical records don't indicate any problems that would impact the decisions that Marie will make about her anesthesia plan. But then the unthinkable happens - during the surgery, Jolene's heart stops and she dies. Marie is completely devastated, even more so when thinking of Bobbie Jansen's loss. She obsessively reviews her actions to determine if the death was her fault and cannot find anything that she should have done differently. But when the autopsy comes back and indicates that Jolene had a heart problem, it's Marie who has to take the blame for not discovering this before the operation.

It's Marie that will be facing a malpractice suit, the first in her illustrious career. When the hospital tries to protect itself and severs itself from the suit, it's Marie that faces criminal charges. And it's Marie who has to face the mirror every day and know that it is because of her that a little girl died, that a mother is without her only child. Although many of the staff at the hospital support her, most particularly a former lover and now best friend, Joe Hillary, she is consumed with guilt and finds herself unable to do her job with confidence.

In addition to the medical situation, Marie is dealing with issues going back to her childhood and a difficult relationship with her father, who is going blind and unable to live independently for much longer. She's also very supportive of her sister and her family. At the same time, she is trying to face up to a future that doesn't include her beloved profession and to learn what kind of person she really is. She's dedicated herself totally to her work and never married or had children. Is there any meaning to her life if she can't do the job that she loves?

OXYGEN was a gripping read, one that involved my mind and my heart. I was amazed to find that this is Cassella's first book. Her 25 years in the medical field were used to good effect; the medical and scientific information was fascinating and comprehensible, as were the descriptions of the grueling job of anesthesiologist. The plotting was complex, twisty and plausible; and there was a surprising resolution that knocked my socks off.

OXYGEN is on my short list for best debut novel of 2008. To sum it up in one word: Wow!

Reviewed by Maddy Van Hertbruggen, August 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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