Richard Baker

Why is A Fortunate Woman a Sunday Times bestseller?

It is not, on the face of it, an obvious blockbuster. It’s a quiet, intimate book that follows a country doctor working closely with a rural community. The GP is never named, nor is the steep-sided valley in which it is set, and nor are the patients identified.

It offers us a portrait of a community and a glimpse into the lives of others, and that must be a large part of its appeal. Another gratifying aspect of its popularity is that it is beautifully written. Polly Morland (pictured right) connects the people and the landscape in beguiling prose that will make you fall in love with the place as well as the doctor.

At its centre, though, it is a meditation on healthcare. The continuity and dedication of one woman’s work shines out – and in doing so the book puts a spotlight on much of what is being lost in our health services.

As the doctor does her rounds, caring for the stoic odd job man who had ‘hurt his hand bit’ – had severed his own thumb with a drill – the farmworker whose very appearance in the surgery indicated that he must be profoundly ill to have sought care at all, the mums, the teenagers, the old lady in the care home outliving her life expectancy by years, we piece together a full picture of the life around her and the vital importance of her work.

The extraordinary story of how Polly came to write the book and its several astonishing connections with John Berger’s 1967 classic A Fortunate Man – The story of a country doctor will be told at ChipLitFest, but it is evident that readers continue to love real-life stories that intertwine care and the community. From Doctor Finlay’s Casebook (originally a 1935 novella by AJ Cronin that ran to nearly 200 episodes on the radio and TV), to the James Herriot vet stories that behind their jovial tone pierce through to some extreme poverty in the Yorkshire Dales, we love to read about rural caregivers and get the sense that ‘all human life is here.’

And about that writing: clear, simple and profound. Polly Morland’s delicate and tender style is mentioned in every glowing review.

Here is a taste of it here:

“As the sun sinks in the valley, and the shadows rise, as if from the waters of the river itself, the people who live here go about their business. An elderly man crouches on his garden step, brushing his dog’s grinning teeth with a small toothbrush. A teenager, bare to the waist, LA hip-hop blaring, practises kick-flips on his skateboard in a fluorescent lit garage. A woman in office clothes heaves bags of shopping from the boot of her car onto mossy flagstones by her back door. A couple walking hand in hand on a rusty footbridge stop and they kiss. A man in painter’s overalls swirls his brushes in turps by the kitchen sink overlooking the darkening forest, and hums a thread of melody. A baby drifts off to sleep, wrapped tightly in a woven blanket, the sound of wood pigeons cooing outside her window. And at the surgery, the doctor bumps her bike over the back step, turns off the light inside and begins the lovely ride home.”

You can look forward to hearing Polly read more from the book and discuss how it all came about at 1pm on Sunday 30 April.

Polly will be in conversation with Dr Helen Salisbury.