by Sinclair Lewis
Martin Arrowsmith is a medical student at the beginning of the 20th century. The Pulitzer-prize-winning novel follows his journal through school, two engagements, marriage, a job as a small town doctor and his pursuit to research cures for different strains of bacteria. Lewis has a distinct skill for writing about the inner workings of a small town life and the inherent pressures that go hand-in-hand with it. He was from a small Midwestern town and so he understood how they worked.
The frustration that many students feel when they take a job straight out of school is the same now as it was 100 years ago. They are idealistic and believe they will change the world, and then they are confronted with the unavoidable mundane aspects of the “real world.” They must deal with people they dislike and they have to face the prospect of doing the same thing every single day. Everyone reacts differently to this prospect, but most people have a hard time letting a few of their dreams go in order to make a difference on a smaller scale.
There is a lot of humor in the book. The scenes with Pickerbaugh, a local doctor who Martin works with, are particularly hilarious. He has a huge family and is obsessed with spreading information about personal health care. Martin quickly realizes he can’t stand him and he’s terrified he’ll become like him if he stays in that job.
As Martin vacillates between the pull of a steady job and income and the desire to pursue his research dream he is tempted by many things. A young woman named Orchid catches his eye, and then the possibility of a higher rank and power at his institution attracts him. Lewis did a great job laying out many of life’s temptations and chronicling Arrowsmith’s battle against them.
The book is truly about one man’s journey to find himself and his purpose in the world of medical research, but the heart of the book is Leora. She keeps him grounded, she gives him purpose. I do think she’s a man’s version of a perfect woman rather than a realized ad fleshed out character, but she is still interesting. Her relationship with Martin was the most interesting aspect of the book for me. There are moments when I just want to smack Martin for the way he treats her and takes her for granted. Her endless support is what keeps him going and yet he seldom acknowledges that. Martin’s other grounding force is his old professor, Max Gottlieb. He has always admired him and he aspires to become a researcher like him, but Martin puts Max on a pedestal and doesn’t try to connect with him as a real man.
The ending stumbled and faltered for me. It was almost as if Lewis was writing and writing and then realized at some point he would have to wrap things up and end the book. It didn’t mesh with the rest of the story and just felt contrived.
BOTTOM LINE: A long-winded look at one man’s struggle between his idealistic goals and the reality of being forced to conform to society’s standards. The plot loses its focused a couple times and that becomes tiresome. The main point is there, but at times it gets lost in the meandering observations of the writer.
“As he had never taught them to love him and follow him as a leader, they questioned, they argued long and easily on doorsteps, they cackled that he was drunk.”