10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Turn of Mind
By Alice LaPlante
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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Jennifer White has moved from mental derangement to clarity so often since developing Alzheimer’s disease that her friend Amanda O’Toole once said she kept reappearing “like some newly risen Christ.” But the 64-year-old Chicago widow seems to need another kind of miracle after Amanda turns up dead with four fingers surgically removed from her right hand. As an orthopedic surgeon, Jennifer is a person of interest to the police and can’t or won’t remember if she killed her friend. Can she save herself as her mind betrays her? Her effort to understand what happened to her friend becomes, whether or not she realizes it, a journey both psychological and spiritual.
10 Discussion Questions for Turn of Mind:
1. Did you find Alice LaPlante’s portrayal of the mind of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease credible? Why?
2. How would you describe the character of Jennifer White? How does she change – and how does she remain the same – as her Alzheimer’s disease gets worse?
3. Turn of Mind is a murder mystery and a family drama, and some people would argue that in a mystery, the plot matters most, and in a drama, the characters do. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the plot of Turn of Mind? How would you rate the character development? Do your rankings tell you anything about the book?
4. LaPlante uses the literary device known as unreliable narration, telling a story from the point of view of someone whose account you can’t fully trust, throughout Turn of Mind. And Jennifer is certainly “unreliable” in the sense that her mind is deteriorating. But at times she seems more trustworthy than the people close to her, including her children, Fiona and Mark, and her caretaker, Magdalena. How believable did you find her story? Who was the most reliable or trustworthy character in the book?
5. Jennifer says that she has abandoned the faith of her childhood: “I was raised Catholic, but now I just like the accessories.” [page 165] But she later speaks of friends “Sent by God,” which suggests that she has accepted God. [page 305] How would you explain this change in belief?
6. Amanda compares Jennifer to a “newly risen Christ” after one of her returns from the darkness of Alzheimer’s into the light of clarity. [Page 114] Other characters have names associated with Jesus, including his apostles James and Peter and his faithful follower Mary Magdalene. And the color white – the source of Jennifer’s last name — symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus (which is why many clergy wear white vestments and churches display white lilies on Easter). Details like these are never accidental in a book by a serious writer. In what other ways does Jennifer appear to be a Christ figure or a stand-in for Jesus? How is she “resurrected”? What is LaPlante saying with all of this? What links is she drawing between suffering and faith? [More on this issue appears in a review of Turn of Mind posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012.]
7. A key symbol in Turn of Mind is that of the labyrinth, which people have interpreted in many ways over hundreds of years. Some scholars say it represents the maze-like path heaven or enlightenment. In Turn of Mind it could also represent the mind of someone with Alzheimer’s or Jennifer’s search for answers about Amanda’s death. What do you think the labyrinth in Turn of Mind symbolizes?
8. One of the limits of writing from a first-person point of view (having an “I” tell the story) is that you can show only what the narrator sees. You can’t go inside the heads of other characters as you can when you use an omniscient or all-seeing narrator. LaPlante tries to overcome this limit in part by having Jennifer write in a notebook that contains messages left for her by others, including her daughter, Fiona [pages 9, 35, 86]; her caretaker, Magdalena [pages 8, 54]; and her dead friend, Amanda [pages 66–68]. Jennifer also gets a letter from her son, Mark [pages 71–73]. Were the notes in the notebook credible? Why or why not?
9. Did you notice that Jennifer switches from first-person narration (“I”) to second-person narration (“you”) at the start of Part Three? [Page 23] And that she switches to third-person narration (“she”) on page 282? Why does Jennifer start referring to herself as “you” and “she”?
10. What did you think of LaPlante’s decision to omit quotation marks from the book? Were you able always to follow the story or would quotation marks have made it easier?
1. Turn of Mind has moments of humor, such as a David Letterman parody in the form of a list of the Top 10 Signs You Have Alzheimer’s. “No. 3: Girl Scouts come over and force you to decorate flower pots with them.” [page 33] Were they appropriate? Which of the humorous moments do you remember?
2. Have you read other murder mysteries with unreliable narrators, such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent or Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? If so, how did Turn of Mind compare to them? An earlier post on One-Minute Book Reviews offered an answer to the question: Why do novelists used unreliable narration?
Turn of Mind. By Alice LaPlante. Atlantic Monthly Press, 305 pp., $24. Published: July 2011. Paperback due out in May 2012 from Grove.
A review of Turn of Mind appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012.
Alice LaPlante talks to Jane Ciabattari about how she came to write Turn of Mind, which won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize in England. LaPlante has also written The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing.
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Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter, often comments on novels book clubs are reading, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.