One of the most delightful feelings in the world is to be pleasantly wrong, and I was pleasantly wrong about Dana Schwartz’s 2021 novel, Anatomy: A Love Story. I bought the book ahead of my first book club meeting next Tuesday (yay!), and to “judge a book by its cover,” it didn’t seem to me like something I’d be into. Admittedly, I thought it would be a fluffy read. But as I said, I was pleasantly wrong! I texted my sister-in-law 30 pages into the book, “The first book of the book club is delightful so far!” And it only continued to be so. I don’t precisely remember what made me conjure up the word “delightful,” but I think it may have had something to do in the prologue with the concept of “resurrection men,” i.e., the men in 19th century Edinburgh, Scotland digging up bodies to sell to universities and doctors for medical research.
The story specifically follows Hazel Sinnett, one of my favorite protagonists in quite some time, I must say, who is a 17-year-old “lady” in Edinburgh, preordained since birth to marry her cousin, Bernard, a stuffy boy who thinks her dreams a fantasy, to join their rich houses together. Instead, Hazel prefers reading anatomy textbooks and dreams of being a surgeon, despite the barriers to her gender. The idea of being a surgeon — an occupation, mind you, seen in those days as butchery compared to the more refined elegance of the physician — as a woman would have been unheard of, especially gaining any traction with the Royal Edinburgh Anatomists’ Society, where Dr. Beecham is the renowned physician. In this society, Hazel is seen as unlady-like if she goes galivanting in Old Town without a (male) chaperone.
Hazel persists, though, to the point where she pretends to be her dead older brother, George (who died of the Roman fever, so named for the boils on one’s back, leaving scars reminiscent of the stab wounds to Julius Caesar’s back, which two years prior to the events of the book killed scores of people, and so, people fear its return), to gain entry into Dr. Beecham’s lectures, and eventually, to take the physician’s exam to become a surgeon. This ruse is soon discovered, and because she’s a lady, she’s tossed out. You’re going to notice a theme: Hazel persists, though, and convinces Dr. Beecham to let her take the test, anyway, and if she passes, women will be allowed into the lectures going forward. That leads Hazel to meeting Jack Currer, a 17-year-old resurrection man.
Jack brings her the bodies! How wonderfully delightful and uh, romantic, is this? And cool? Hazel is cool! I love that this society-deemed “lady” is working with, and helping, Jack to dig up bodies to test her skills and knowledge on. She sets up shop at the dungeon of her estate, Hawthorden Castle, and eventually, over time, she also allows the poor and destitute to come to Hawthorden so she can treat them, even those with the dreaded Roman fever (and which Hazel in her brilliance, despite her age, figures out how to tame).
I thought an interesting notion was brought forth by a lecture Hazel overheard from Dr. Beecham, who is actually the “third” in his family lineage, with his grandfather, Dr. Beecham, being the one who kicked off the anatomy textbooks. Dr. Beecham invented what he called “ethereum,” which knocks out a patient, allowing surgeries to occur with the patient none the wiser. The way Beecham talked about how the 19th century was a new century and one for “conquering the laws of nature,” tracks. By the early 20th century, men thought themselves gods to conquer the laws of nature via eugenics, and by the 21st century, perhaps similarly with something like the allure and hype around cloning. This drive and ambition to supersede the laws of nature, to play God in a sense, is an important bit of foreshadowing by Schwartz.
I think about mid-way through the book, it occurred to me that Dr. Beecham the Third is actually just the original Dr. Beecham, and that occurred to me because Schwartz started the book with quote from Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, but also because bodies are literally being dug up and used in surgeries. That much is clear. I just put two-and-two together, and it turned out to be the case. Dr. Beecham came to see himself as not merely playing God, but rising above God. In addition to what we’d already seen in the book between what society expected of Hazel versus what she wanted to do, and in how Bernard acted versus how Jack Currer, a poor boy from the Old Town, acted, the way Dr. Beecham was using the poor and criminals to be his “bodies” to take their organs for the rich, further elucidated the class divide theme permeating Schwartz’s book. Heck, Dr. Beecham doesn’t even see the poor and the criminals he’s using as people; he refers to them as “specimens.” Which, to be fair, Hazel is also digging up bodies and learning from them, as it were, but I should note the difference: Hazel and Jack are digging up dead bodies; Dr. Beecham and his nefarious men are killing people and taking what is needed for the rich.
As it happens, of course, Hazel and Jack fall in love, and their first kiss happens after digging up a body and hiding from the aforementioned nefarious men within the grave. So, yes, their first kiss was six-feet deep in a grave. I told you this book was delightful and romantic! That grave kiss is juxtaposed to a brutish and wet kiss forced upon Hazel by Bernard earlier in the book.
But we don’t exactly get a happy ending we may hope with this love story (although we do in the sense that Hazel doesn’t marry Bernard), like another woman preordained to marry the rich stuffy man, and who instead falls in love with a Jack (Rose from Titanic), because Dr. Beecham and his men catch Jack digging up a body (the poor boy is quite literally poor and desperate, despite the danger) and Dr. Beecham seeks his heart to try his hand at transposing a heart. He cuts Jack. Jack and Hazel, who was also present for the moment instead of taking her physician’s exam, are able to escape and seek refuge at Bernard’s estate, Almont House. Bernard, though, the scorned would-be lover, calls the “cops” on Jack and has him arrested for the murders Dr. Beecham has been committing. Jack is to be hanged.
Wait! There’s a wrinkle: As I mentioned, Dr. Beecham the Third is actually just the original Dr. Beecham and he’s survived this long by taking body parts from people and transposing them to his own body. However, his “antirejection medication” to make the body parts and organs compatible is some sort of immortality elixir — one drop is all it takes — and Dr. Beecham took a full amount to ensure his own immortality, only adding to his sense of godliness. He actually gives a vial of it to Hazel perhaps because he’s lonely in his ego, who then shares it with Jack so he can survive the hanging.
True to his name as a resurrection man, and in a moment that made me smirk with delight, Jack seems to have taken the immortality elixir, owing to the epilogue: he’s waiting for Hazel in America.
What an arc this book was for me, going from judging it by its cover and “sensibility,” to being reeled in by the resurrection men concept, falling in love with Hazel as a rebel to her societal chains, to falling in love with the story of Hazel and Jack’s rebellious love story as the total sap I am, to rooting for them both to survive it all and live happily ever after. You got me, Schwartz, you got me. Well-done. [curtsy]
Seriously, I would recommend this book for a fun time with a great premise, strong execution, and an unforgettable protagonist.