Arts and Entertainment

Bainbridge author debuts first novel this weekend

Author, mother, anesthesiologist and islander. Amidst its suspense, Carol Cassella’s debut novel, “Oxygen,” presents finely wrought ruminations on life, love and work, and the implications of the choices we make in the name of each.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Author, mother, anesthesiologist and islander. Amidst its suspense, Carol Cassella’s debut novel, “Oxygen,” presents finely wrought ruminations on life, love and work, and the implications of the choices we make in the name of each.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The protagonist of Carol Cassella’s debut novel improbably turns anesthesia into poetry.

From the first paragraph of “Oxygen,” Dr. Marie Heaton’s reverence for her work putting people to sleep comes through in a way that’s – oh, let’s just get it over with – breathtaking.

Of course, as with any juicy and well-crafted story, there’s more to Marie than she herself lets on, and her tendency to over-embrace the rigors of her job hint at conflict and denial that any reader who loves her work, perhaps too much, will identify with.

“I think she had used medicine as a shield for some of the things she wasn’t ready to deal with,” Cassella said.

Marie’s world is one of order. A single woman in a downtown Seattle condominium with an enviable view, she’s constructed an outwardly frenetic but inwardly sterile life made of work, a few friends, her sister, Lori – a stay-at-home mom who lives with her family in Texas – and an ailing father she tries to avoid.

“I can’t prove that rolling into the operating room believing you will be kept safe improves the outcome of surgery, but it’s where I find the artistry in my work,” Marie says.

Her philosophy is well thought-out, but a tiny, tiny kernel of hubris sneaks in to bite – a young child in surgery has a reaction to the anesthesia and dies under her care.

The rest of the novel unfolds as a nail-biter, with layers of topical issues being peeled back to reduce Marie to her core: family, hospital politics, the choices we make for love and for money, and how – and whether – it’s possible for a professional woman to have everything she wants. And at what cost?

That last is a question Marie circles around a lot, and one that resonates for Cassella. Herself a practicing anesthesiologist, she’s also a mother of two sets of pre-teen twins. And then there’s this novel, and her sideline work as a medical writer. She makes for a formidable “how does she do it?” example of working mom-hood.

The answer to “how” partly lies in the fact that housework falls to the bottom of the list – working parents, say “yeah” – but also that the writing of Oxygen came “in clumps – like exercise.”

Having wanted to write since she was young, Cassella nonetheless gravitated toward medicine, which she points out can be a remarkably flexible career.

As she approached mid-life, she realized her need to write was growing increasingly more urgent. So she found a way to combine her interests through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, interviewing and writing about medical practitioners in developing countries.

“That writing had so much heart in it, so much soul, that it really re-awakened that desire to write creatively,” she said.

She took classes, joking that she was the very first person to sign up for Field’s End, and eventually found herself in a workshop offered by Michael Collins.

At the end, she pitched him her initial idea for “Oxygen.” He had her write a two-page synopsis and liked what he saw enough to encourage her to continue.

Three years later, she sold the book to Simon & Schuster. Not only that, they asked for a second proposal, which they purchased at the same time on the strength of the first.

If it sounds like an obnoxious publishing fairy tale, look closer. As she describes her trajectory, there’s a tinge of wonderment but also a matter-of-fact acknowledgment that most of the time, the price for creative, maternal, marital and professional fulfillment is the chaos that comes with multiple part-time gigs.

And that’s okay. She’d rather come home to pancake batter on the ceiling than to an empty condo.

“Part of me is Marie, and part of me is Lori,” she said. “And sometimes I wonder if Marie is the one I would have become if I hadn’t met my husband.”


Carol Cassella reads from “Oxygen” at 3 p.m. June 29 at Eagle Harbor Book Co. See

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