Book Club #2: The Doctor's Discretion by E.E. Ottoman

My selection for our monthly book club is The Doctor's Discretion by E.E. Ottoman, a book I was very excited to read because of the raves it had been receiving in historical romance circles. I'll open with some of my own thoughts, and then the floor is yours. Please feel free to comment! I think this one will inspire a lot of discussion. Some of my fellow Cheesemongers will be contributing their thoughts in the comments as the weekend goes by.

This LGBTQ historical romance is the story of not one, but two doctors, William and Augustus, who meet cute when they are both hired to inventory the collection of medical texts left behind by a recently deceased doctor. William has a great deal of experience with going through estate collections because he is African-American and has had difficulty finding a permanent position in 1831 New York. Augustus works at the infamous New York Hospital (think The Knick, around 70 years earlier) under the tyranny of his superior Cooke and fear that he will be outed as a trans man.

The plot thickens when another trans man, Moss, is imprisoned at New York Hospital in Doctor Cooke's custody. Augustus, knowing all too well what kind of horrors this man will be subjected to, plots to liberate him, and enlists William's help to do so. The two become embroiled in far more than just an escape plot in the process.

I found William and Augustus to both be very compelling, sympathetic characters. One of the highlights of the book for me was how their two individual life experiences make them compassionate towards each other. The life of an African-American man at that time did differ from that of a trans man in the details, but both suffered because of oppression and prejudice, which sowed a more fertile ground for understanding between them and, eventually, love. Augustus' background I thought especially surprising and well done. Both men are well-developed and I came to really root for them.

I also admired the spareness and clarity of Mr. Ottoman's prose. With historicals, sometimes things can get a little flowery (soooo guilty), but here the period details were described with subtlety. There was a lived-in quality without sacrificing mystery to the library, their respective apartments, and the hospital scenes. For instance:

The only sound in the room was the wood shifting and settling in the fireplace and the scratch of two pens. Every once in a while a chair would scrape as one of the other of them stood with an armful of book and went back to the shelves to return them and get more.

Mr. Ottoman moderates a historical research-focused Facebook page, so it didn't surprise me that the novel was extremely well-researched. But his writing really made those details come to life, and the book never felt weighed down by information. If anything, these details helped mold the characters, their backstories, even their romance, and they also added to their mystery. One of the joys of the book for me was discovering these little unknown aspects of history, almost to the point where I wish they each had a book of their own. I could have read an entire novel set in Doctor Russell's library, for instance, or in New York Hospital, or other locations I won't spoil.

But there was an aspect to the book that kept it from being more than just enjoyable for me, and that was in the plotting. (I'll continue without spoilers, but we might get into some in the comments, so I'll ask those going into that territory to please clearly mark that portion of your comments. Thanks.)

The first 2/3rds are well-balanced in terms of tension, especially the plot to free Moss from the hospital. The stakes are extremely high, since failure means not just ruin, but much worse, for everyone involved. But then the tension just... deflates. A major reveal doesn't work the way it should--it leaks action from the narrative instead of intensifying it. Just when things should be revving up, the ending seems like a foregone conclusion and there is a bit of treading water. For me, it was still interesting to learn more about the characters and their lives, but the reveal and everything after robbed the book of a climax.

I would still recommend The Doctor's Discretion to histrom lovers. William and Augustus are wonderful characters with backstories we don't read about enough. I love the representation, I loved the romance... but I wanted to love some aspects of the novel a little more.

Now, over to you! 


  1. I pretty much agree with all you said, Selina The book started well for me - I liked the introduction with William a great deal; the setting was wonderful - there were a few memorable scenes that brought 1830s NYC to life that I've thought about since finishing the book - and the writing was smooth and flowed well - but unfortunately the plot was a bit disappointing. Ottoman actually built up some good tension in the first part of the book - as you say, he brings home to the reader very clearly the precariousness of both William and Augustus' positions - but just when the danger should have grown, it dissipated. Unlike you, the romance didn't particularly chime with me, but I liked both characters individually and the sense of time and place was very good indeed. I kept thinking I'd've liked to have read about William studying in Glasgow or Augustus doctoring on his ship.

    1. I think you've hit on part of the problem there, Jo, which is a lot of the incidental details inspire the imagination more than the actual story. I almost wonder if it should have been cast against a different setting. Or perhaps even flip-flopped. The major action comes at the beginning. But if he'd set the book entirely between New York Hospital and the Russell archive, with Moss' release coming at the climax, it might have worked better.

  2. Is there a doctor in the house?
    Because this needs some CPR, or maybe a kiss of life.

    Unfortunately, this one left me flat. It didn’t just leave me flat, it started that way, went on that way and then ended that way. Which is a shame because I really wanted it to kick into life at some point.

    As others have noted above it had some great elements and it should have come to life really nicely, but for me it just missed some vital spark. It had great little details deftly woven in to make the setting and period come alive. It had nice backgrounds for the characters, so that I gained a sense of who they are and why. It had a plot, that could have worked well if nudged in the right directions at the right time. But it was in bringing them all together that it seemed to just not quite work.

    Having said all that, I’m glad I gave it a go. Because I think that with a little more (or maybe a little less) mixing that E E Ottoman will be able to serve up just the right balance of elements, because the writing itself is smooth and works a treat.
    So, thanks for suggesting it as a read, as I’m not that big a historicals fan I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise.

    1. LOL, Allan. Now I can't wait for your turn! Great mini-review. :D

      I definitely would read other Ottoman books (and have). He's one my one to watch list, since a lot of this book was well-done. Just maybe need to ruminate on the plot a bit longer.

  3. A little late to the party here !
    I also had issues with this book, one was the plotting (and for me it was definitely a book of two parts) - the first part of the book meeting Augustus and William, their chemistry and the introduction of Moss I found sweet. I also really enjoyed the depiction of 1830's New York which felt very vibrant and added another layer to what potentially was a complex book.
    The second (or maybe 2/3 in) was way too swift, and felt like the author had 'done' what they wanted to in terms of relationships/ romance and wanted the book to be tied up neatly. For me it was too neat and to sudden - all the potential the beginning had was washed away.
    My second issue is a little more tricky, I felt that the reasons why Augustus and William were seen to understand each other was overplayed. A trans man and a black man in the 1830's had much in common in terms of how they were threatened by society, and this was clearly identified early on, however we were told the connection directly a couple of times after as well. I felt that showing this connection would have lifted the story a little, as it did verge on the tell-y at times.

    Overall I enjoyed it, I read it in a day, but it was Moss I was rooting for!

    1. You raise a very interesting point there, Karen! I agree that because of the low stakes in the second part, Moss ends up being the one whose HEA is not assured and therefore the one the reader worries about the most. I almost wonder if he should have been one of the protagonists and Augustus a doctor who agrees to help them...

    2. For me no, I think because Moss was in very overt danger, i wanted him to be ok.
      I would love his story !

    3. Yes, for much of the story I was more interested in Moss and what was going on with him. Even thought the 2 MCs were interesting folk in their own right I wasn't sold on the romance between them.

    4. I did like the romance, I just feel that having achieved what ( I am assuming) the author wanted to, it was a bit of a race for the finish line. So the romance kind of fizzled out for me. I also wonder what would have made it work ? I would have been peeved if they didn't get a HE !

    5. I'm with Allan on the romance. I wanted to feel it, but I didn't. To me, they read like convenient partners who liked one another rather than two people in love.

    6. For me they were two people at the beginning of their relationship, which due to circumstances made them live in close proximity, I would have liked to see more development - which is why the sudden resolution of everything was so frustrating


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