As a reviewer, I’ve read a lot of entries in what I might call the “foreign woman living in Italy genre,” always with deep wariness. Unless the author was Shirley Hazzard writing about Naples (“Greene on Capri,” 2000; “The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples,” with Frances Steegmuller, 2008).
No wonder my guard was up when the first chapters of physician Susan Levenstein’s “Dottoressa. An American Doctor in Rome” (Paul Dry Books, 2019) provided an epic rendition of bureaucratic Italy. Per fortuna, Levenstein’s anecdotal memoir — set for release in May — steers clear of the colonialist trope in which life among “friendly Italian natives” brings emotional and sensual liberation to the hidebound foreigner.
Levenstein pulls back from that stereotypical brink by infusing her odyssey with warmth, depth and intellectual curiosity. Lifted on the breeze of her wry humor and humanity, chapters and sections are arranged by glossary-style Italian musical terms. Titles such as opera buffa ma non troppo, la legge , and so on, explore the myriad public and private themes that the practice of medicine inevitably touch on. They include sex and love, money and honesty, politics and fear.
Levenstein’s decades of private practice serving a wide variety of patients (ranging from local neighbors to international aid workers) would expose any doctor to pretty much everything, both medically and socially. This is where her desire to know more comes into play. This curiosity is as non-judgmental as it is intellectually acute. Looking back, Levenstein delights in her discoveries. She also extracts deeper lessons and delivers insights into how societies and individuals heal and live. These come with laugh-aloud examples that deftly trace 50 years of changes, from the closure of New York’s city-run hospitals to the introduction of co-payments to Italy’s public health system — events that warped and perverted health care systems in both countries.
Levenstein lays out the health care choices all societies must make. These days, hundreds of policy papers and newspaper editorials regularly debate competing claims of medical efficiency, patient care, cost-containment, and expanding reach. But none do so with Levenstein’s humor and sensitivity to the human condition. And they certainly don’t make it fun — never mind being able to set the story in the Eternal City.
— “The American” publishes a column by Susan Levenstein, “Bedside Manners,” which is also included as part of her blog.