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Review of "The Education of Mrs. Bemis"

By John Sedgwick
HarperCollins, 2002
Review by Su Terry on Nov 26th 2002
The Education of Mrs. Bemis

            The Education of Mrs. Bemis: A Novel by John Sedgwick is a good old-fashion mystery. Like Sedgwick’s previous novel, Dark House, it has everything - murder, sex, illegitimacy, and insanity among the Boston Brahmin class.

The Education of Mrs. Bemis: A Novel by John Sedgwick is set in modern Boston with copious flashbacks to an earlier and more elegant era. While shopping at Filene's Department Store, Alice Matthews, a young psychiatrist, discovers an elegantly dressed woman sleeping on a bed in Bed and Bath Department. Alice determines that the woman appears to be physical okay but very disoriented. An ambulance is called, and the woman is sent to Boston City Hospital for a medical and psychiatric evaluation. At Boston Hospital it is ascertained that the woman is Mrs. Madeline Bemis, a 76-year old wealthy widow and society matron. Dr. Gerald Faulkes, the emergency room physician, concludes that Mrs. Bemis is physically healthy, but that her refusal to talk suggests some mental imbalance and warrants further evaluation and treatment. After consulting with Dr. Faulkes, Alice Matthews has Mrs. Bemis sent to the once exclusive Montrose Psychiatric Hospital where she works. Alice is intrigued by Mrs. Bemis and her persistent silence and decides that she wants to be the one to release her from her prison of silence. After much wrangling with her superiors over treatment methods, Alice wins the honor of handling Mrs. Bemis case. While Alice works hard to break Mrs. Bemis silence, Madeline Bemis is hard at work reviewing her life story. In a flashback, Mrs. Bemis returns to the 1940s and her youthful self as “Maddy.” She has been called home from boarding school to see her college-aged second cousin off to war. At first Maddy is confused by her parent’s request to come home, but when her cousin asks for a lock of her hair and for her to wait for him, she begins to understand her parents’ logic. Bemis is rich, handsome, and has a bright future ahead of him in his father’s firm. In short, he is every girl’s dream and every parent’s hope for a daughter’s future husband. After a rushed first kiss at the train station, Bemis boards a train for officer’s training and Maddy returns home to prepare for her role as Mrs. Bemis. Both families are ecstatic over the future union, but Maddy is not so thrilled. She is frustrated by the prospect of sitting home, having never had a date and only one unsatisfying kiss, while her friends are out enjoying the social frenzy and whirlwind romances of wartime Boston. When a sexy Irish day-laborer tempts Maddy to slip away with him for a night of dancing, Maddy literally jumps at the chance, but she gets more than she bargains for and is left pregnant.  When her parents discover her “delicate situation” she is sent to an exclusive home for unwed mothers in Golden, Colorado for a supposed “rest cure.” Meanwhile, Bemis has been wounded and lies physically and emotionally shattered in a hospital in England. The one hope he clings to is to return home and marry his “ever faithful” Maddy. Marry they do, but there is no “happily ever after” for this couple. Flash forward, Alice has gotten much too personally involved in Mrs. Bemis’ case. Alice seeks out the help of detective Frank LeBeau, a police officer that assisted her with a violent ex-boyfriend. As they explore their relationship with each other, they are also forced to explore the strange connections between their individual cases (Alice’s silent Mrs. Bemis and Frank’s mysterious corpse).

This book raises many ethical questions. Both Alice, the psychiatrist, and Frank the police detective, push the boundaries of professional ethics. Alice uses her relationship with Frank to access his police resources for information about Mrs. Bemis past. Frank uses Alice to probe Mrs. Bemis for personal information about the dead man. Alice uses Frank’s information to invade Mrs. Bemis personal life and to trespass on her and other people’s property. Frank uses Alice’s information to identify his corpse and to solve the mystery of his death. In addition, Alice accepts a rather major gift from Mrs. Bemis – to go into details would ruin the story – but it is substantial and clearly must be in violation of professional ethics and practice for psychiatrists.

John Sedgwick is a magazine journalist with 20 years of experience. He graduated from Harvard. He is a writer-at-large for GQ, contributing editor for Newsweek and the national correspondent for Self. He has written articles for Atlantic, Town and Country, and Worth. He has written three nonfiction including, Night Visions: Confessions of Gil Lewis, Private Eye (1982); Rich Kids: Young Heirs and Heiresses: How They Love and Hate Their Money (1985) The Peaceable Kingdom: A Year In The Life Of America’s Oldest Zoo (1988) and two novels, Dark House (2000), and The Education of Mrs. Bemis (2002). John Sedgwick is a member of the historic Sedgwick family of Boston and his family live in Newton, MA.

The Education of Mrs. Bemis: A Novel by John Sedgwick is an education for the reader. It should spark questions about ethical issues, but if the reader does not want to think that hard, it is also an engrossing psychological mystery. A worthwhile read! I recommend this book.


© 2002 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.