Historical Fiction Review: The Heart Specialist

I will read just about anything. My three exceptions are horror, anything by Danielle Steel (the woman can’t write), and historical fiction. The book doesn’t even have to be a work of historical fiction; just the mere reference to a multi-generational novel that includes a war or reference to the 1800’s will be enough to send me screaming.

So it’s a surprise to me that I picked up, read, and enjoyed The Heart Specialist by Claire Holden Rothman.

In the hopes that some of you might enjoy it also, here’s a review of The Heart Specialist using Shelley Wilson’s book share template . (You’ll find other books I’ve reviewed in the Perspectives section of Profound Journey.)

First Line of the Book

“All morning I had been waiting for death, even though when it finally came the change was so incremental I nearly missed it.”

Since that sentence will absolutely give you the wrong idea, I’d better continue.

“I had laid the squirrel out on a crate and covered it with a rag to keep it from freezing.”

Recruit Fans by Adding the Book Blurb

“As a young girl living in the late nineteenth century, Agnes White is drawn to the ‘wrong’ things. Growing up, she finds herself fascinated by microscopes, dissections, and anatomy–hobbies that are deemed unladylike. Yet despite the criticism of those around her, the obstacles set in place preventing women from assuming traditional male roles, Agnes chooses to pursue her calling to become a doctor, even if it means taking on the illustrious medical establishment at McGill University.

Inspired by the life of Dr. Maude Abbott, The Heart Specialist is a testament to the power of will and perseverance. Agnes White is proof that in a world on the brink of change anything is possible.”

Introduce the Main Character Using Only Three Words

tenacious, obtuse, curious

Delightful Design (Add the Cover Image)

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” may be true when it’s a metaphor for understanding people, but in this case I certainly chose to read The Heart Specialist because of its cover. Viewed up close, it’s a beautiful piece of mixed media art.

cover of The Heart Specialist historical fiction

Audience Appeal

If you enjoy historical fiction, you will obviously enjoy this book. Fortunately for me, it is also enjoyable for being an engaging tale of a singular woman who manages to live her passion despite the many obstacles in her path.

Your Favourite Line or Scene

I have a couple of favourites:

“Happiness is a strange thing. It is something I tend to recognize only after it has passed, when I realize I miss it.”

“I had achieved my dream, but what had it brought? Wealth? I glanced at my dress, worn too many days now without washing, and at the patched cloak bunched under my arm. Renown? I’d been a celebrity in my student days, but since then I might as well have died. Happiness? My eyes pricked with tears. The day I received my degree I thought my life would be completely altered. I had entered the forbidden land of my father. Nothing would ever be the same. But in truth nothing happened. I remained plain old Agnes White, no richer or more famous or happier than before.”

Do you enjoy historical fiction? What’s your favourite literary genre? 



Join the tribe:


  1. Okay, that does sound interesting Karen. I am not usually a fan of historical fiction either but I do love to root for the underdog and a woman pushing to become a doctor and taking on the illustrious medical establishment at McGill University definitely sounds like someone worth cheering for. There is also the medical aspect of this book that intrigues me. I, too, am drawn to medical stuff and do a lot of research on diseases, conditions, and drugs to understand how things work.

    This bit is sad to read, though, “The day I received my degree I thought my life would be completely altered. I had entered the forbidden land of my father. Nothing would ever be the same. But in truth, nothing happened. I remained plain old Agnes White, no richer or more famous or happier than before.” I wanted to hear her crowing about how deliriously happy and successful she was after all that struggle to become a doctor. How she had shown them all that women can do these things too and now they see the light! 🙁 I might give it a go though, to see whether it captures my attention like it did yours.

    My favorite literary genre is one of your exceptions – horror. Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite author of all time is Stephen King. I have bookcases filled with his work and I strive to get every new book he puts out. There is a new one out now that he co-wrote one with his son Owen King titled “Sleeping Beauties.” Owen has written some books of his own but under the pseudonym, Joe Hill in an effort to be sure any success is contributed to his writing alone and not just because he is Stephen King’s son. I admire that. I have read his books Heart Shaped Box and Horns and found out indeed he has inherited his father’s writing gene.

    1. Hi Karen,

      I love historical fiction and will probably give this book a go. The themes align with many of my own life’s thoughts.

      My last historical fiction book I read was called The German Girl by Armando Correa. Yes it has a war theme and definitely based on a true story of a ship full of Jews trying to escape from Nazi Germany during WWII. I remember reading the author’s notes at the back of the book and was totally floored when I read that Canada turned down this boat load of immigrants. That’s not how I viewed Canada and I was devastated. That feeling lasted for several days!

    2. Interesting last paragraph Susan. I once read Stephen King voraciously. When it came to “It” I just couldn’t read his books any more. I found them repetitive and haven’t touched them again to this day. However, your last paragraph piqued my interest. Does his son also write horror stories?

      1. Hi, Fran, thanks. Funny, I never found his books to be repetitive although some of them are huge tomes that make portability of the book you’re reading out of the question!

        The answer to your question about Owen King (Joe Hill) is yes, he does also write horror stories. I guess the apple really doesn’t fall too far from the tree. I found this on Wikipedia.

        Joe Hill (writer) – Wikipedia
        Novels and collections. 20th Century Ghosts (2005, collection) Heart-Shaped Box (2007) Horns (2010) NOS4A2 (2013) The Fireman (2016) A Little Silver Book of Sharp Shiny Slivers (2017, collection) Strange Weather (2017, collection)
        Children‎: ‎3 Genre‎: ‎Horror‎, ‎dark fantasy‎, ‎science fiction
        Relatives‎: ‎Stephen King‎ (father); ‎Tabitha King‎ … Spouse‎: ‎Leanora King (1999–2010; divorced)

        Here is a synopsis of the new book with his Dad “Sleeping Beauties”
        In this spectacular father/son collaboration, Stephen King and Owen King tell the highest of high-stakes stories: what might happen if women disappeared from the world of men?

        In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep: they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent. And while they sleep they go to another place, a better place, where harmony prevails and conflict is rare.

        One woman, the mysterious “Eve Black,” is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Eve a medical anomaly to be studied? Or is she a demon who must be slain? Abandoned, left to their increasingly primal urges, the men divide into warring factions, some wanting to kill Eve, some to save her. Others exploit the chaos to wreak their own vengeance on new enemies. All turn to violence in a suddenly all-male world.

        Set in a small Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, Sleeping Beauties is a wildly provocative, gloriously dramatic father-son collaboration that feels particularly urgent and relevant today.

          1. You’re welcome for the synopsis, Karen…I am one dedicated Constant Reader. If you do give it a read, Karen, I would love to hear what you think of it.

          1. You’re welcome Fran, I know as soon as I can get my hands on a copy of Sleeping Beauties it will show up on my Goodreads account on my Currently Reading shelf. 😉

    3. You’re right that was a sad bit in the book, not at all like what we’d expect of the movie version of a woman overcoming all odds! But the book is still a good read. I hope you’ll give it a go.
      Interesting, about Stephen King’s son. I’ve heard of Joe Hill (no idea where), but didn’t know that was a pseudonym or that he was Stephen King’s son. In fact, I didn’t know that Stephen King had children. Every photo I’ve ever seen of the man has been him toiling alone at his writing desk!
      No wonder he took a pseudonym. Talk about a tough act to follow!

      1. I might just have to get our library to hook me up with a copy of The Heart Specialist when they reopen. The library is going through a much-needed renovation right now and is temporarily housed in a local public school during non-school hours. So, for now, I am being contented with the books I have here at home that I haven’t read. It will definitely go on my list of want to read books on Goodreads. Thanks for sharing it with us Karen or I might never have known about it.

        Here is a link you might enjoy looking at to get a more intimate look at Stephen King and clan.

  2. I like this book review format, Karen. It gives us a good idea about the book and story without revealing too much. Interesting topic. I discovered historical fiction about a decade ago and realized I liked it more than I would ever thought. When it is written well. These days, I don’t have much time to read and when I do, it is books written by friends to give them my opinion and help out, and/or write a review.

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      That’s generous of you to read friends’ books and help them out. I tried that once for a friend’s doctoral dissertation which was an excruciatingly tedious read. I hope your friends’ books are more interesting!

  3. In my day there weren’t all the fabulous young adult books you get now and I graduated from Enid Blyton to adult authors that you could read by the yard in much the same way – first Agatha Christie and then Jean Plaidy. From the latter I jumped off into historic fiction generally and that, and a good teacher of course, disposed me towards history at university. I still read historical fiction but mixed in with other things. This book sounds good, I like the woman medic theme. The first woman to graduate from Glasgow in 1894 was a Doctor, Marion Gilchrist. I’m pleased the uni chose to name one of its coffee shops after her a few years ago. Most things are named after men!

  4. I’ll be really interested to know what you think if you do decide to read The Heart Specialist, Anabel. If you enjoy the woman medic theme, I think you might really enjoy this novel.
    I love to hear that a cafe at Glasgow University is named after their first female doctor.

  5. I enjoy some historical novels, particularly those set in the mid to late 1800’s. That was a time of great change for women who, like Agnes, dared to invade a male profession. Sometimes a small opening of the door facilitates the eventual throwing of that same door wide open and your heroine evidently was a trailblazer. Your synopsis makes this sound like a book I’d enjoy reading Karen. Thanks!

  6. I’m a big historical fiction fan, but like any other book I read, it must be compelling and well-written. Sometimes “historical fiction” is just a venue for a trite love story (snore). This one looks interesting, though.

    Two books of historical fiction I have enjoyed especially are The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (one of my all-time favorite authors) and Loving Frank (about Frank Lloyd Wright) by Nancy Horan.

    1. This one was well-written, Janis. In fact it was long-listed for a big national prize, the Giller.
      I’d forgotten all about Loving Frank. I loved that book! Another one I enjoyed, now that I think about it, is Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen. You’re making me realize that if the character is of interest to me, I maybe don’t detest historical fiction after all.

  7. Hi, Karen – Another great review! Like you, I usually steer clear of all books categorized as “Horror” or “Historical Fiction.” Occasionally, for Book Club, I need to make an exception to this rule. Recently, we read Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace. I was happy to have read this book and have recently thought that I should give some more Historical Fiction a try. The Heart Specialist seems like a great choice. Thank you for the recommendation.

  8. This looks like a great recommendation, Karen. The theme of a woman achieving her goals despite having things stacked against her is appealing. On the topic of strong women and a medical theme, have you read Ami McKay’s “The Birth House?” It is set in early twentieth century Nova Scotia. Although it is a novel, it is structured somewhat like a memoir.

    Another historical tale that I really enjoyed is Anthony Doerr’s novel, “All the Light We Cannot See.” It is one of the best books I have read in the last couple of years. It takes place during the Second World War, so it is historical, but not really of the historical novel genre.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *