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"Exiles": A Stanford Doctor and His Daughter Take on the World in Debut Novel 

Wednesday, Jul 6 2011

In Exiles, the debut novel from journalist Cary Groner, a middle-aged Bay Area cardiologist yanks his teenaged daughter out of their broken home and takes her to Nepal to work with him in a health clinic there. This goes as well as the dart-toss-at-wall-map method of world travel usually does, but by the end Groner's Americans abroad have hit on some true-seeming things about the bumpy beauty of the father-daughter bond.

Groner has studied Buddhism for years, and his book is rich with well-observed detail and intelligent empathy. Fifteen pages in, we're even feeling for a spider who starves to death in the corner of a scene. That's useful; it will help us build up the goodwill to transcend early hesitations, as when the weary doctor discovers his love interest, a temperamental RN. He went to Stanford, she to UCSF, and here they are, a world away together, treating impoverished children with leeches up their noses and self-scratching eyeballs, among other much more horrifying ailments. Scrupulously researched gross-outs notwithstanding, it's still a meet cute — are we in for a gloating liberal-guilt litany of third-world affliction, or will Exiles settle into the medical ego-battle procedural long favored by American prime-time TV? Neither, exactly. Groner keeps things moving, and thankfully that often means moving beyond reader expectations.

Yes, the doctor soon has an abundance of novelistic ministrations to contend with, including his daughter's own blooming affair with a local girl, a pet goat named after "the giant meth-head biker who'd run off with his wife," the enmity of an obese sex trafficker, a lama with an open yet ailing heart, and, of course, the looming Maoist mountain guerrillas. But narrative convention clearly doesn't get Groner down, and so his manner of beach-book tourism comes to seem quite elevated.

That said, he does also have a wry knack for bringing it home: "Peter wondered at the happiness of Nepalis, people who owned nothing but a few clothes, a cooking pot, a jug for the neighborhood water tap. They lived short, uncomfortable lives beset with pestilence, shared with parasites and mangy dogs, and still they laughed more than anyone laughed in Berkeley."

Obviously not counting on a home-field advantage, Groner likely will gather a general (if still selective) readership. He's a brisk, attentive describer of squalor and spiritual bliss — of a whole world, in other words, to which he's welcome.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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