The Beauty Doctor, a Powerful Historical Thriller by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

The Bottom Line: A powerful, richly drawn historical thriller that is as terrifying as it is absorbing. Highly recommended. 

Aspiring doctor Abigail Platford has nearly given up on her dream to follow in her father’s footsteps to help New York City’s poor. After her father’s death and her mother’s remarriage, she fends off an attempted rape by her alcoholic stepfather – a situation that finds her agreeing to marry a man she can’t imagine a future with in order to escape. The Beauty Doctor opens five months before the planned wedding date, as Abigail prepares to attend an engagement party intended to introduce her to New York high-society.

The lavish costume party achieves the exact opposite of what Abigail’s future in-laws hoped. Instead of ingratiating the young couple into high society, Abigail is revolted by the wealthy in attendance, and her career aspirations are reinvigorated by a discussion of Gray’s Anatomy with the handsome doctor seated next to her. The next morning she awakens convinced that she must somehow call it off. She throws herself at the mercy of the man she met at the party, Dr. Franklin Rome, a surgeon who has trained at Johns Hopkins and in Europe. Dr. Rome’s speciality is “transformative surgery” (what will eventually become known as plastic surgery), and he offers her a position as his assistant as well as a place to stay. 

The first sign that she’s made a terrible mistake comes when an unconscious boy is mysteriously delivered to Dr. Rome’s practice. Abigail is put into an impossible situation as she realizes that the boy is about to undergo experimental surgery without his consent. To her horror, she realizes that this – experimenting on the defenseless and the poor – is how Dr. Rome develops new techniques. “One day, he’ll be grateful,” Dr. Rome assures her. When she doesn’t agree, he threatens her position: “Maybe you’re not a good fit for this practice after all.” 

If Dr. Rome is in the habit of experimenting on unconscious boys, what else is he capable of? And when Abigail discovers what else he’s up to, what will she do about it? 

Throughout the novel, author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard — who excels at using vivid imagery to bring the Edwardian era to life – creates suspense by putting Abigail into a series of realistic scenarios in which she has to make impossibly difficult choices. The moment Abigail dons a butcher’s apron and assists with Dr. Rome’s surgery is a new low, and one in which the opportunity to somehow fulfill her dreams to work in medicine and live with herself seem completely at odds. To add context to Abigail’s decisions, Bernard opens the book with a prologue explaining that in the early 20th century, a shutdown in many American medical schools meant far fewer legitimate opportunities for women to become doctors. 

Through Abigail’s vulnerability, Bernard provides a trusted lens through which we can experience the horror and promise of early 20th century medicine. Every indignity Abigail endures only serves to create an even bigger payoff when she eventually hatches a workable plan forward. The Beauty Doctor will no doubt earn Bernard new fans.

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