Book Review: The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen

The Surgeon
The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Trigger Warning: Sexual assault and surgery are both mentioned (albeit mostly as concepts) in this post.

I rarely read mysteries, so this was a bit of a departure for me. The books I prefer are character-driven and move at a nice, comfortable pace. I knew this was going to be plot-driven and quick, and I was kind of looking forward to the change. I read the first 150 pages in one chunk; I was totally sucked in. I was up past midnight reading and thinking, “How can I possibly put this book down?”

But the knowledge that my son would be up at 6am demanding oatmeal whether I’d been to bed yet or not got me to close the book. By the time I woke up, the adrenaline had worn off and all of the things I didn’t like so much in those first 150 pages started bubbling up. When I went back to the book, I still felt compelled to finish it, but now it was more to have it done with.

First, what I didn’t like:

1) Too many twists and turns. We’re headed in one direction and just as I feel like we’re getting up a head of steam, we do a 180 (well, maybe not always a 180…more a 90). At the beginning, this drew me in. As it went on, it just became repetitive. I suspect this is just a characteristic of the genre, but it kind of wore on me.

2) Too many generalizations about sexual assault and survivors of sexual assault. It would be one thing if just one character expressed these generalizations, but throughout the book, anyone who has been sexually assaulted is “broken,” “damaged,” perpetually a “victim.” If a character has been sexually assaulted, there is no other way for her to be, according to this book. I just don’t buy it. Sure, there are going to be commonalities between the ways different women deal with a similar trauma (VERY similar in this book, because apparently rape only happens if there’s GHB or Rohypnol involved), but it’s like there was just one “victim” portrayed by a half-dozen different women. In addition, the vulnerability and victim-ness they exhibit is attractive not only to “predators,” but also to people who want to date them. And that’s just kind of creepy. It’s even more creepy because it’s not called out as being creepy in the book.

3) Too much “stuff.” Okay, so how many “calling cards” is this murderer going to leave, anyway? I won’t list them because that might be considered a spoiler, but I can think of about a half-dozen right off the top of my head. And they’re pretty much all red herrings. The book felt padded; it could easily have been half as long as it is.

4) Restrictive (and kind of insulting) definitions of gender. The killer removes the uterus of each of his victims, an organ described as “the one thing that makes them women.” Really? That’s the one thing that makes me a woman? And if I have a hysterectomy I’m…what? “By taking the womb,” the criminal psychologist explains, “he defeminizes his victim.” I have a little bit of trouble with such a narrow definition of womanhood. And with the word “womb” used interchangeably with “uterus.” One is a concept and one is an organ; they’re not really interchangeable.

Aside from the initial adrenaline rush, there was one other thing I particularly liked about this book, and it’s not even clear to me that Gerritsen did it intentionally. This was the similar way in which she described both surgery and assault. In both, you have a person lying naked and vulnerable in a room with one or more strangers. In both, you have brute force (“…they tore into the chest with almost brutal force,” a phrase that’s used in chapter seven to describe a surgical maneuver). In both, one person relinquishes control and bodily integrity—unwillingly and/or unknowingly—to another person. In both, the victim/patient is drugged and unable not only to give consent but also to form coherent memories of the act. But the similarity in the moment of surgery/assault is where it stops. Gerritsen leaves out entirely the psychological effect of surgery, instead focusing only on the psychological effect of assault.

I think the book may have held my interest more had Gerritsen played up this connection more. It’s an interesting idea, and would have brought the whole “good” vs “evil” thing into a whole new realm of gray. She was trying to do this with Detective Thomas Moore and his personal battles with right and wrong, but that subplot just kind of fell flat for me. (That name, incidentally, was almost too much for me. I know it’s supposed to be all cutesy that his nickname is “the saint” and all, but seriously.) Had Gerritsen played up the surgery/assault connection, she could also have done more with the “victim” vs “perpetrator” divide, which would have been especially interesting given that the main character is both a victim of assault and a surgeon. But then, she might not have had a medical suspense/murder mystery anymore if she’d gone that route.

Basically, this book wasn’t awful and as a novel of suspense and mystery, I think it accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish. It’s just not really my thing. But I’m looking forward to discussing it in book club.

View all my reviews

3 Replies to “Book Review: The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen”

  1. Never thought about “womb” vs “uterus” bscore, thanks for that. Being married to a surgeon, I think I’ll skip this book though.


    1. Yeah, I think it’s pretty skippable for most people and perhaps more so for the spouse of a surgeon.


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