After a somewhat awkward incident of an acquaintance thinking I’d borrowed his copy of The Tennis Partner almost ten years ago and never returned it, I decided to take it as a sign and actually read the book. (I got it from the library, however.)
Having read Cutting for Stone last year, I already knew Verghese as a talented writer and a medical doctor in his daily life.The books are, of course, very different. While Cutting for Stone is a novel, The Tennis Partner is the true story of Verghese’s friendship with another doctor named David Smith.
In the mid-1990s, Verghese and his family move to El Paso, Texas where he works in internal medicine. I found the setting of El Paso, a city I’m entirely unfamiliar with, to be fascinating. A town bordering Mexico, Verghese manages to show us a city both beautiful and dangerous. Barren but with hidden corners of bounty. Verghese’s work introduces him to many victims of AIDS and drug abuse but he doesn’t immediately recognize his colleague as a drug user.
Smith and Verghese are drawn together by a love of tennis. Smith, an Australian, travelled on the pro circuit while Verghese has simply had a life long obsession with the sport. They find that they make good partners on the court and a friendship springs up. While Verghese navigates through a divorce from his wife, Smith gradually reveals his past addiction and how he has had to start over. While clean at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that there are unresolved issues for Smith, particularly in his relationships with women.
As close as the two men become, Verghese is always slightly removed from Smith’s inner life, often not knowing exactly what’s happening to his friend. At times he seems to have a sort of willful blindness, though it’s not hard to sympathize with someone who wants to see the best in a person he cares about. Verghese is extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of addiction and drug use, as demonstrated by his work with his patients, and yet baffled by the mental struggle behind addiction. In fact, he comes across rather callously in one section, after Smith has returned from rehab. At times, it seems that Verghese’s concern is more with losing his tennis partner than with what’s best for his friend.
Overall though, the book is a moving and intimate portrayal of medical work and friendship. As with Cutting for Stone, I found that sometimes the medical descriptions delved too deep and, while interesting, left me feeling nauseous. Perhaps readers with stronger stomachs will do better. In a similar manner, there is a lot of detail about tennis in the book. As someone who has never held a tennis racquet in my life, I just didn’t care and found myself skipping over many of these sections, which didn’t detract from the story itself.