Monday, March 15, 2010

The Tennis Partner

Dr. Abraham Verghese is going through a difficult time when he meets fourth-year medical student David Smith at his El Paso teaching hospital. Verghese has moved his wife and two young sons to El Paso hoping for a fresh start, but his marriage is already in trouble and he will soon find himself living apart from his wife and boys. Australian David Smith is a Texas Tech student at the El Paso hospital to complete his final year before moving on to the next stage of his medical studies. Smith is going through a difficult time of his own, one that constantly threatens to ruin his life, if not end it entirely.

The two seem destined to hit it off – and, soon, they will be more than teacher and student, they will be close friends. They share two passions in life: medicine and tennis. Smith is good enough to have played the game professionally for a while, and Verghese loves tennis so much that he has been keeping journals about his progress in the sport since he was a boy. Both Verghese and Smith need something to distract them from the stress of their daily lives and the local tennis club becomes their common refuge.

It is only later that Dr. Verghese learns that Smith is in El Paso to repeat his fourth-year studies – and why - and that Smith is very fortunate to have been given a second chance at the process. David Smith is addicted to cocaine and it is destroying him. Despite being subject to random drug testing, regular AA-style meetings, and the monitoring of a sponsor if he is to keep his place in the school, Smith has to struggle mightily every day not to give in to his craving for the drug. That his professional future depends on him remaining sober will not be enough to make it happen.

The Tennis Partner is the story of a unique friendship between two men at a time in their lives when each man is in desperate need of the kind of support that only a close male friend can offer. At the hospital, Dr. Verghese is the teacher and mentor that Smith so badly needs; on the tennis court, Smith is the teacher, Verghese the student. When Dr. Verghese realizes that Smith is relapsing into his addiction, he finds it difficult to decide what his obligations are. Does he respond as Smith’s friend or as his teacher? Do his obligations to the hospital override those he feels toward David as the only friend David Smith seems to have in the world?

Those readers who discovered Abraham Verghese through his wonderful 2009 novel, Cutting for Stone, will already know what a powerful fiction writer the man is. They will be happy to find that he displays the same skill level in 1998’s The Tennis Partner, his second memoir. The tragedy of David Smith’s life provides the focal point of the book but, along the way, Verghese explores topics as varied as fatherhood, marriage, the health care system along the southern U.S. border, friendship, addiction, and loyalty.

Rated at: 4.0

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