Lucy Clark’s A Baby for the Flying Doctor: Boundary-breaking Australian medical romance

A Baby for the Flying Doctor (Medical Romance)I have to say straight up: I’m not the target audience for this book. I borrowed it from a friend to read for the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge,* thinking it would be a quick read and might help me reach my target of 50 books by the end of the year. Life got in the way, and I only ended up finishing it after New Year.

It’s not the first Harlequin Mills & Boon (HM&B) Australian medical romance I’ve read. Years ago, I enjoyed reading some books by Marion Lennox set in Tasmania. While this book isn’t up to Lennox’s standard, it does have an interesting aspect to recommend it for readers of the genre and those interested in boundary-breaking romance novels. (Note: the following contains spoilers.)

The story – like all good HM&Bs – centres around the hero and heroine, two doctors who specialise in Emergency Medicine. They meet on a transcontinental train on the way to a conference where one, the English hero, Gil, will be the keynote speaker. The heroine, Euphemia, is a doctor with the Royal Flying Doctor Service who has escaped to live life in the Outback after devoting her childhood and young adulthood to helping care for a brother with Down’s Syndrome. As a teenager, Euphemia – or Phemie, as she’s known – had genetic testing and discovered herself to be a carrier of the “translocation trisomy 21 chromosome… [the] defective chromosome usually related to children being born with Down’s” (p 61).

What makes this story stand out from other HM&B romances I’ve read is the conflict which threatens to prevent Gil and Phemie getting together happily. It’s not just the fact he is a career doctor from the other side of the world, although that is an issue. More importantly, it’s that Phemie doesn’t want to risk having children. She fears subjecting a child to the kind of life she led: growing up in the shadow of a sibling with Down’s. Having a heroine who doesn’t want to fall pregnant is a risk for Clark, because, without careful handling, Phemie could seem unsympathetic. By making Phemie protective of her unborn (healthy) child, Clark attempts to retain the romance reader’s sympathy for her, despite the fact that there’s something narcissistic – although very human and understandable – in this kind of fear. But Clark also goes one step further (and earns my admiration): she has Phemie admit, much and all as she loves her brother, she’s not sure she’s up to the sacrifices required of a parent of someone with Down’s.

Clark manages to resolve Phemie’s conflict in a believable (and yes, happy) way. How? By hedging her bets: arranging for an adoption and having Phemie fall pregnant – with the hinted possibility of genetic testing in utero. Phemie and Gil will become parents, possibly of a biologically healthy child – or possibly only of an adopted child. It’s a happy ending, yes, but one that touches on what years ago was a taboo subject for HM&B novels: the possibility of termination.

Despite this interesting issue, this book didn’t grab me. Why? The written expression lets it down. Cliches abound. Some of the cliches are foregrounded in a way that suggests this author knows better. For example, Phemie thinks of Australia as a “wide brown land” not once, but twice. It nearly had me dropping the book. The second time, however, she pulls herself up with a thought (paraphrasing), “Not brown exactly, more like ochre.” Okay, so real people do think of the landscape in the generic terms of a Dorothea Mackeller poem, but I demand more from my fictional characters if I’m to spend time with them. The world Marion Lennox created with one of her stories, set in a coastal village in Tasmania and somehow involving penguins, is still vivid in my imagination, many years later. Good romance writing is out there. Clark’s flacid language, I’d assume, is symptomatic of the time HM&B authors are given to write their books: some are asked to write three or four a year. Not enough time to craft and hone the language but, even so, some of Clark’s clangers are unforgivable; and they do nothing to elevate the genre’s reputation of being the domain of hack writers.

Who will enjoy A Baby For the Flying Doctor? HM&B regular readers and students of romance interested in topics that push the genre’s boundaries.

This review counts towards my Australian Women Writers 2013 challenge.

* “Lucy Clark” is the pen-name for a husband and wife team.

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