The Tennis Partner

After reading Cutting For Stone, I was hungry for more from author Abraham Verghese. Wow, was this a great book. Like some of my other all-time favorite reads, it took me a while to get into this one, but once I did, I was so well rewarded. I felt a little bereft when it ended, another sign of a great book. The characters were so richly drawn, they truly seemed like real people, and I was sad to think I wouldn’t know what happened to them for the rest of their “lives.”

I’m not crazy; this happens with good books, and I’ve heard other people say the same thing so I know I’m not crazy. At least not in this case.

I searched in vain for more books by Abraham Verghese and although he’s written prolifically for such esteemed magazines as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, he doesn’t have dozens of novels at the ready for voracious readers. He has written a book called The Tennis Partner, however, which I quickly scooped up on amazon.com. 

Verghese is an infectious disease doctor and has been a professor of medicine at Harvard and Stanford, in addition to being a bestselling author. The Tennis Partner tells the story of Verghese’s friendship in El Paso, TX, with David, a medical student who is a recovering drug addict. Their friendship grows amid a shared love for tennis, and they both find the game to be “an island of order in the midst of personal chaos;” in Verghese’s case, his crumbling marriage, and in David’s case, his drug addiction.

One of the things I love so much about Verghese’s writing is his innate ability to describe a scene in such a way that makes it familiar and easy to visualize. For instance, when writing about moving to El Paso, Verghese says “This is the great promise of moving: that if you fold your life into a U-Haul truck and put it on the road, you will be given a clean plate with which to approach the buffet.”

Beautiful prose. Simple and clean, yet so on-the-money descriptive.

It’s a great story, not just because of the tennis. Both men were struggling with different things in their lives, yet tennis became the equalizer. Verghese says, “In the way we controlled the movement of a yellow ball in space, we were imposing order on a world that was fickle and capricious. Each ball that we put into play, for as long as it went back and forth between us, felt like a charm to be added to a necklace full of spells, talismans, and fetishes, which one day add up to an Aaron’s rod, an Aladdin’s lamp, a magic carpet. Each time we played, this feeling of restoring order, of mastery, was awakened.”

I get that. Wow, do I get that. One of the reasons I wanted to get back to playing tennis as soon as I could post-mastectomy was to impose order on a disorderly life. And guess what? 9 days post-reconstruction, I already can’t wait to get out on the court and put this mess in order.

One line in the book has really stuck with me, and I carry it with me in my game. David and Abraham are battling it out on the court, David being the more experienced and younger (read: more spry, less creaky, and speedier) player. He always manages to best Abraham, and after yet another victory explained his winning strategy. It’s very simple. “Remember, the one with the fewest errors wins.”

True, so true, and not just in tennis.

I love tennis, and I’m fascinated by how the human body works. I’ve written about this before, and now that my latest surgery is in the rear-view window, I’m again impressed with and amazed by how our bodies react and heal.

I’m also fascinated by doctors. Surgeons, especially. Not in the “reverence for the white coat” aspect of previous generations, nor because of the fact that they perform a very difficult job. There are lots of hard jobs out there, and I’m sure there are plenty of things other professions require that docs wouldn’t handle well.

It’s more a fascination with what makes them tick and how their minds work. I always want to ask my specialists, why did you choose oncology? why did you choose plastic surgery? I’m overly curious (some would say nosey) about the minutia of their jobs: how many patients call them after-hours? how long does it take to repay med school loans? what do you do to unwind and feel like a regular person? I mean, after say, a 7-hour surgery in which they restore order to a hellacious mess of a chest wall, do they wash up, drive home in traffic, pop a beer and veg out? Or do they refrain from drinking, even after a long day, because they can be called into surgery at any moment?

Verghese writes quite eloquently about the physician as a regular person and of medical humanism. He’s an old-fashioned doctor in a modern world, and he teaches new-fangled doctors his ritualistic bedside observations. He believes medicine is a passionate and romantic pursuit, not just a science.

Kinda reminds me of my own infectious disease doc telling me that in my case, because of the post-surgery infection, he was practicing the art more than the science of medicine.  A lovely thought after months of exams, tests, and hospitalizations that had left me feeling like a piece of meat. Not Grade A meat, either.

As I prepared for my most recent surgery, I remembered a lengthy but compelling passage from The Tennis Partner. Even though my pre-surgery to-do list was a mile long, I found myself flipping through the book to find this passage. I wanted to re-read it, as if absorbing these words into my brain would somehow transfer into the surgeons’ hands as they cut me open and tried to repair the damage that had been done. It took a few minutes, but I found it.

Verghese was treating a young woman in El Paso with mysterious symptoms and no clear diagnosis. He writes about how as he entered her hospital room,  he was looking for more than just physical manifestations of an illness:

I was attentive to the aura of the room, vigilant for her icons — a doll, rabbit-ear slippers, a prayer card, her own nightgown. I inhaled discreetly so that her scents, all the eructations and effluvia that were hers, the redolence that night spell the name of the disease lurking below, could land on the free nerve endings of my olfactory nerve. Smells registered in a primitive part of the brain, the ancient limbic system. I liked to think that from there they echoed and led me to think “typhoid” or “rheumatic fever” without ever being able to explain why. If the diagnosis eluded us in the first few days, her chart would thicken as pages of computer printouts bearing witness to the blood urea, the serum creatinine, the liver enzymes, and other soundings accumulated. But no computer could make the mind-pictures I could form if given the right clues: a liver hobnailed by cirrhosis; a spleen swollen like a giant and angry thumb from mononucleosis; a smooth-walled cavity in the lung apex within which a fungus ball clatters like a bead in a baby’s rattle.”

I love the “eructations and effluvia” especially. That’s some good alliteration.

I also really identify with the patient, and know that I too have a chart that has thickened with computer print-outs and such. Not that it’s a contest, but I bet my chart is thicker than hers.


9 Comments on “The Tennis Partner”

  1. Ed says:

    This part spoke to me and the mysterious way thoughts occur to us:
    Smells registered in a primitive part of the brain, the ancient limbic system. I liked to think that from there they echoed and led me to think “typhoid” or “rheumatic fever” without ever being able to explain why.

    It reminds me of a philosophical discussion about the question, “who is the thinker of my thoughts?”. From whence do our thoughts arise?is there a force or consciousness creating them and planting them in our minds? Or are they simply the result of random chemical and electrical impulses?

  2. […] reading here: The Tennis Partner | The Pink Underbelly Tagged with: compelling-passage • flipping-through • mile-long • most-recent […]

  3. […] original post here: The Tennis Partner | The Pink Underbelly   March 11th, 2011 Uncategorized Tags: compelling-passage, flipping-through, […]

  4. […] Read more: The Tennis Partner | The Pink Underbelly […]

  5. […] The Tennis Partner | The Pink Underbelly Tagged with: compelling-passage • flipping-through • mile-long • most-recent […]

  6. Barb Fernald says:

    I loved “Cutting for Stone.” Definitely one of my favorite books of the year. Keep up the reading and resting between tennis games!

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  8. Carrie says:

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