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The Spirit of the Place

Literature & Medicine, Medicine


A new novel by the national bestselling author of The House of God

Samuel Shem’s classic novel about medical internship, The House of God, is required reading in medical schools throughout the world and is celebrated for its authentic description of medical training and practice, for its Rabelaisian comedy, and for its humanism and vision. His new novel, and most ambitious work yet, The Spirit of the Place, tells the story of an expatriate doctor called home to Columbia, New York, in the early 1980s to face his own history and that of the place. It is a novel of love and death, mothers and sons, ghosts and bullies, doctors and patients, illness and healing.

Settled into a passionate relationship with an Italian yoga instructor and happily working in a European spa, Dr. Orville Rose’s newfound peace is shattered by a telegram informing him of his mother’s death. On his return to Columbia, a Hudson River town of quirky people and “plagued by breakage,” he learns that his mother has willed him a large sum of money, her 1981 Chrysler, and her Victorian house in the center of town. But there’s a catch: he must live in her house continuously for a year and thirteen days.

As he struggles with his decision—whether to stay and meet the terms of the will or return to his love and life in Italy—Orville reconnects with Bill Starbuck, the town doctor who mentored a young Orville and who practices a long-ago kind of medicine that treats the working poor, people neglected and forgotten by the medical and insurance industries. Now in his seventies, and in need of help with the practice, Bill convinces Orville to stay.

During the course of his year and thirteen days, Orville reacquaints himself with Columbia and Columbians. He reunites with his sister and niece and comes to terms with old rivals and bitter memories. And he doctors a community in desperate need of care. He also meets Miranda Braak, a remarkable young single mother who aspires to be the town historian. Her knowledge of and reverence for the past challenges Orville to examine his own history, and her courage, integrity, and love challenge him to grow. In this story filled with wit, pointed insight, and drama, Orville learns what it means to be a healer, and to be healed.

The Spirit of the Place is Shem at his finest—compassionate, capacious, funny, full of big ideas and memorable personalities. It offers an authentic, unvarnished portrait of the medical profession and underscores the crucial link between the health of individuals and the health of communities.

Silver Award Winner in Literary Fiction-2009 Independent Publisher Book Awards



Samuel Shem (pen name of Stephen Bergman) is a novelist, playwright, and, for three decades, a member of the Harvard Medical School faculty. His novels include The House of God, Fine, and Mount Misery. He is coauthor with his wife, Janet Surrey, of the hit Off-Broadway play Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (winner of the 2007 Performing Arts Award of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), and We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues between Women and Men.


“What a deep pleasure to have a new novel from Samuel Shem, raucous and insightful physician of the soul. This book captures a town, a man, a time of life with all the verve and nerve that marked The House of God. Hooray and about time!”
—Bill McKibben, author of The Bill McKibben Reader

“A deeply moving and profoundly intelligent exploration of the complexities and rewards of family, profession and place. The story of a young physician returning to his small town becomes a tale with universal meaning. This book continues to resonate in the mind and heart long after it is read.”
—Jerome Groopman, M.D., professor Harvard Medical School, author of How Doctors Think

“The Spirit of the Place is written with a large heart, a healing touch, wry and wise insight into the human condition. Worthy of the best of Samuel Shem, which is worthy indeed.”
—James Carroll, author of House of War

“This tender novel probes the nuances of personal and communal identity, how we struggle to escape, accept and exceed our past, and the secrets, stratagems and dreams that we knowingly or not use to fuel our life. Shem’s writing is lyrical, wise, and as always, very funny.”
—Jay Baruch, author of Fourteen Stories

“In this lovely novel Samuel Shem brilliantly describes scenery from the Italian Lakes to the Hudson River Valley with vivid enchanting detail. But his real subject is the landscape of the human heart with its dangers and delights, it’s vertiginous cliffs and mossy woods, it’s comforts and contradictions. This is a wonderful book about the surprises of human connection and the infinite power of love.”
—Susan Cheever

“As in The House of God and Mount Misery, I was riveted by this story of a world-weary young doctor called to heal the body and spirit of his ailing hometown—and of himself. The Spirit of the Place is special—a grand, wonderfully insightful story of love and death, mothers and sons, doctors and patients—filled with larger than life characters and told with outrageous Shem-humor and authentic humanity.”
—Michael Palmer, author of New York Times best-seller The First Patient

“Samuel Shem captured the humor, the angst and pathos of medical training in that unforgettable book, The House of God. His new book is an incredible and heartfelt story of a physician whose life has taken the most unexpected twists and turns. The Spirit of the Place entertains, satisfies and affirms; it is beautifully conceived and brilliantly executed. Shem has done it again!”
—Abraham Verghese, author of My Own Country and The Tennis Partner