What is the difference between a mere anecdote and a story? Can stories ever heal, and can a story with a naturally happy ending be as effective as a literary tragedy which seems to end in the middle, with purposeful suddenness? And what happens when the narrator is not a disembodied voice, but someone who has to deal with the people behind the tales they tell, who is supposed to help those behind the story when the book is shut?
A doctor is a healing storyteller, as Louise Aronson points out from many different angles in her beautiful and thoughtful A History of the Present Illness. Being a doctor means hearing stories that you can never share in all their specificity, and sharing in joys that others are not privy to. The doctor-writer is thus tempted to tell all her stories from a doctor’s-eye view. Aronson does not make this mistake, but broadens her Chekhovian vision to encompass the multifarious San Francisco of her birth and professional life as a geriatrician: as a writer in that world, she portrays doctors and patients alike, the young and old, in every hue of skin and character.
She weaves together the stories in this book to portray not just people with illness and those who care for them, but a grand beautiful city, one of the great metropolises of contemporary medicine, which is slowly falling apart: its poor uncared for, its hospitals bursting. At the same time, she shows the psychic price that doctors pay, the wounded healers many of us are.
In her academic life, Aronson is an advocate for public medical communication. This book meets just that need, but communication is too cold a word: it is a cry from a feeling heart in a language that any mortal person can understand. As someone who treats patients and tries to tell their stories, I admire Aronson’s eye and heart, and recommend this book unreservedly.