By Ekta R. Garg
May 20, 2020
Genre: Speculative fiction
Release date: April 14, 2020
Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars
In the near future, a nurse who helps people die discovers the truth about her birth mother. When she embarks on a mission to find the woman, she learns why she was given up for adoption in the first place. Debut author Eve Smith’s novel feels exceptionally prescient in our current times while balancing compassionate opinions in The Waiting Rooms.
In England Kate Connelly works in the Waiting Rooms—hospitals reserved for people over the age of 70. Decades into a worldwide outbreak of tuberculosis that is resistant to all antibiotics, and other health issues that leave the public at risk, senior citizens no longer receive medicines when they get ill. They’re simply taken to the Waiting Rooms where they wait to die.
Kate works to make the entire experience humane, but she still struggles with the emotional and psychological ramifications of what she does. Years earlier, before the TB pandemic, she took an oath to save lives. Now she does everything she can to help them end with as much dignity as possible.
These days her thoughts are turning more to her own situation: her adoptive mother, Pen, has recently died, leaving Kate, her husband, Mark, and her daughter, Sasha, in a wake of grief. While Kate has known for years that she was adopted, she never had an interest in finding out who her birth parents were. Until Pen leaves her a letter urging her to do just that. Curiosity overcomes her reluctance, and Kate begins the investigation process. It leaves her with more questions than answers, however.
In a home for the elderly, Lily Taylor is fearing her upcoming birthday: her 70th. She wonders if she’ll live as long as the home’s oldest resident who has managed to escape the Waiting Rooms by staying in relatively good health more than a decade past the milestone. She also wants to know who is sending her cryptic messages and why. Yes, Lily has made terrible mistakes, but most of that was long ago.
Clearly someone has other plans. Unsigned notes begin to appear, and they drive straight to those mistakes. Lily has paid her debt to society, and now she’s an old woman. She wants to stay healthy and live out her life in peace, a tricky prospect when even a simple cut can turn into a deadly infection. What could the mystery person possibly want from her?
As Kate and Lily try to unravel their respective mysteries, the world fights with the reality of illness everywhere. People remain in a state of constant vigilance: masks everywhere and disinfectant at every turn. The streets still teem with the sick, and protests outside the hospital remind people that the situation is both out of hand and could have been avoided.
Debut author Eve Smith describes a world that feels even more possible than ever before. In the novel, tuberculosis has advanced to the point of total drug resistance and other illnesses are on the same track. The fear, the paranoia, and, yes, the complacency of some will make some readers want to stay away. Others might find this exactly the kind of book they’d like to read during our strange current times.
Smith builds a likable, sympathetic main character in Kate. She grapples with her role as healer-turned-killer; even if she’s using medicines to help ease the suffering of the elderly, Kate has no compunctions about what she’s actually doing and how it could all have been different. Smith makes Kate a proactive protagonist, and readers will find themselves rooting for her and worrying about her all the way to the end.
Lily’s involvement in the plot is slightly more problematic, both from a story standpoint as well as a writing one. Readers might get the feeling they’re coming to Lily’s story too late in the day. All of the sins she’s committed have happened long ago, and while they had far-reaching effects she’s too old to change anything now. She’s been swept away by events and doesn’t have the means or the strength to fight the tide. The complications are fascinating and frustrating by turns.
The book overall possesses a more literary feel—the events described are supposed to have global implications, but readers only really get to see how they change Kate and Lily’s lives as well as the people around them. It would have been helpful if the narrative pulled back once or twice to show a broader worldview, but perhaps such a view would have compromised the emotional connection readers will feel.
Anyone brave enough to read a book about pandemics while enduring one will enjoy this. I recommend readers Bookmark The Waiting Rooms.