A Saturday with the Perownes

I read Ian McEwan’s Saturday in one sitting after we finished our class on Wednesday and I can honestly say that I could not put the book down. I finished around midnight and decided to just sit with the feelings I had just wrestled through over the course of about eight hours of reading. I guess I felt raw and affected. By reading it this way, and of course because of McEwan’s engaging storytelling, I was able to live Henry Perowne’s Saturday with him.

At times I found myself reminiscing, and very nostalgically I might add, about the life I left behind when I came to Vanderbilt. Perhaps it was the familiarity of the hospital, the operating theatre, the terminology, the interactions that took place between co-workers, the smells that were so well described, the life and death of it, that drew me in so much to the story of this particular Saturday. Perhaps it was the striking similarities between Perowne and the man I worked for over the course of seven influential years in my twenties, a man who struggled immensely with balancing a career as a very prominent vascular surgeon with being a father and a husband. Perhaps it was seeing how Perowne was somehow able to juggle it all, remain sane, and even manage to do many things well (except literature of course!) that made me feel some regrets about my active decision NOT to pursue becoming a surgeon. It was seeing the chief of surgery that I worked for struggle with this that helped my decision to lead a life that did not involve surgery. Perhaps it was Perowne’s repeated expressions about the clinical experience as “an abrasive, toughening process, bound to wear away at his sensitivities.”(85) Perhaps it was the dreamy interlude where Daisy is crying on her fathers lap and he is comforting her that really pulled at my heart and drew me in deeply.

Perhaps it was living, through the novel and with Perowne, what is probably every man’s worst nightmare: your family is physically threatened and you feel helpless. You have to watch as your daughter is forced to strip while thinking she is about to be raped. Your wife has a knife to her throat. Your father-in-law has had his nose broken by a reckless man. And you know it is mostly your fault – faulty genes. And all you feel is helplessness. McEwan captured this feeling painfully well. This scene reminded me of how I felt reading The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. There is a particular scene in that novel that really made you experience great compassion for the Wingo family; similar to the compassion I was feeling for the Perowne family.

In the end I am amazed at the forgiveness offered by Perowne toward Baxter. Henry seems to grasp just how lucky he is – at least in the present – because of the fact that genetics did not deal him the blow of Huntington’s disease at twenty-five years old. As Perowne says, “The misfortune lies within a single gene, in an excessive repeat of a single sequence – CAG. Here’s biological determinism in its purest form.” (94) Maybe he feels a kinship to Baxter because of what is happening to his own mother and because he knows that Alzheimer’s is in his own gene pool. Henry knows that he could easily end up how Baxter is going to end up, even if he is able to live a longer and more privileged life. Henry’s comment about Baxter that “He’s an intelligent man and…illness apart, he’s missed his chances, made some big mistakes and ended up in the wrong company.” It is interesting to me that Henry and Baxter are squared off against each other – perhaps in a quintessential nature versus nurture moment. As the narrator reminds us, it is all about “which sperm finds which egg, how the cards in two packs are chosen, then how they are shuffled, halved and spliced at the moment of recombination.” (25)

I was deeply affected and moved by this novel. It was an amazing way to finish the course. Thanks for reading and for receiving me so warmly in the class.

Corey A. Kalbaugh

~ by coreykalbaugh on April 15, 2009.

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