One-Minute Book Reviews

January 15, 2012

Alice LaPlante’s Novel ‘Turn of Mind’ – An Alzheimer’s Gospel

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:02 am
Tags: , , , ,

A person of interest in a murder case can’t – or won’t – recall whether she killed a friend

Turn of Mind. Alice LaPlante. Atlantic Monthly Press, 305 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Has anyone noticed the existence of a micro-genre, novels about Jennifers who represent Jesus? First came Erich Segal’s Love Story, a 1970 bestseller about Jennifer Cavalleri, a young Radcliffe graduate with a fatal illness and a father-in-law who saw her as unworthy of his well-born son. Now there’s Turn of Mind, a murder mystery narrated by Jennifer White, a retired 64-year-old hand surgeon with Alzheimer’s disease whom police think may have killed her daughter’s godmother.

Alice LaPlante draws her religious parallels more explicitly and with more finesse than Segal did in his romantic melodrama. Jennifer White cherishes a 15th-century antique that once disappeared briefly from her Chicago home, an icon that involved St. John of Damascus, whose legend says that authorities amputated his hand after he was framed for forgery and that the intercession of the Virgin Mary led to its reattachment. The body of Jennifer’s friend Amanda O’Toole was found with four fingers surgically removed from its right hand. Does the disappearance of the icon relate to the murder?

Jennifer can’t or won’t offer the answers the sought by the police. She has lost so much of her memory that at times she can’t recognize her grown children, Fiona and Mark, and keeps a journal in which she and others write things she must remember. Her dementia leads you to expect her to be an unusually unreliable narrator. But the notes that others leave in her journal suggest that Jennifer may be most trustworthy character in the book. Is she less reliable than a son who wants her money or a daughter with a red-and-blue rattlesnake tattoo, a potential serpent in Eden?

This plot is reasonably interesting, but it rises above that of a conventional murder mystery mainly by having a protagonist with Alzheimer’s and by gaining a literary gloss from by a few techniques beloved of creative-writing programs. LaPlante omits quotation marks and shows who is speaking by alternating italics and Roman type. This device gives its narrator a flat affect at odds with her strong personality and doesn’t always make the identity of the speaker clear immediately, especially when Jennifer switches late in the book from first-person narration to second- and third-, a sign of her growing distance from her former self. Turn of the Mind is, in some ways, a stunt novel — one more literary than, say, David Nicholls’ One Day, in which the characters reunite each year on the same day, but still one that won’t let you forget its narrative tricks.

But LaPlante adds interest to her story by weaving in a subplot involving faith. She uses her narrator’s mental shifts — between the past and present, lucidity and derangement, light and darkness — to forge subtle links between spiritual and temporal resurrection. Early in Turn of Mind, Jennifer recalls a conversation in which the murdered Amanda said that physical trauma can cause someone to lose faith in God. As the plot unfolds, the possibility arises that a catastrophic change can also restore faith.

Jennifer at first professes not to believe in God, although she wears a St. Christopher medal: “I was raised a Catholic, but now I just like the accessories.” But if she rejects the Father, she has more in common with the Son than that they are both known for healing. She has counterparts of the apostles James and Peter. And she has a Mary Magdalene, a faithful aide named Magdalena who stands by her though the police inquiries and who responds when Jennifer asks why she has confessed to an unsavory past, “You forgive trespasses.” If any doubt remains about what the novel is suggesting, Jennifer says that Amanda told her after her diagnosis: “How many times will I have to say good-bye to you, only to have you reappear like some newly risen Christ.”

It isn’t giving away too much to say that in the end Jennifer seems to allow God back into her life without quasi-spiritual bromides such as Love Storys: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Turn of Mind tells us that when you’ve lost yourself, something remains — the possibility of transcendence. As Jennifer’s mind ebbs late in the book, she has visions: “The playground. The white Communion dress. Playing kickball in the street.” She also has hope. “There is a good place here,” she tells herself. “It is possible to find it.”

Best line: A leader of an Alzheimer’s support group tells its members: “Step One is admitting you have a problem. Step Two is forgetting you have the problem.” Jennifer wants to add a third step: “Step Three is remembering that you forget.” 

Worst line: A newspaper obituary in which the author tries to imitate the style of the Chicago Tribune. Among its lapses: It says a dead woman turned up without saying who found the body, which newspapers virtually always do, and it uses the phrase “sources close to the investigation” without first saying who was investigating the death (ditto).

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for Turn of Mind appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

Furthermore: Turn of Mind won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize for a book about health or medicine.

Published: July 2011 (Atlantic Monthly Press hardcover edition), May 2012 (Grove paperback, forthcoming)

Editor: Elisabeth Schmitz

Read an excerpt from Turn of Mind.

You can  follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. Jan  is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2012 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 24, 2009

Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoir of Her Husband’s Traumatic Brain Injury

Filed under: Memorial Day,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Love and sex in the time of brain damage.

When someone’s personality is altered by a brain injury, has the person changed or has the incident brought out what was there all along? Alix Kates Shulman explores stimulating questions like these in To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 192 pp., $22), a memoir of her life with her husband after he fell nine feet to the floor from a sleeping loft and survived with limits resembling those of advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Shulman tells how, in the months after Scott’s accident, she came to understand the Latin phrase amor fati, which means “to love what is” or “to love your fate.” She writes with insight of the physical and emotional complexities of her husband’s traumatic brain injury (TBI), including its effect on their sex life. And she describes the incompetent care her husband received from mental-health professionals at a good hospital and her amazement on learning that she could fire them. That section alone might surprise  relatives of physically ill people for whom doctors have prescribed psychiatric care that the patients will have to pay for if their insurers won’t. Shulman has posted a generous amount of material adapted from the book on her Psychology Today blog, Love and Dementia, and the first chapter appears on her publisher’s site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 19, 2009

John Bayley on Living With His Wife’s Alzheimer’s Disease, ‘Elegy for Iris’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:09 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Few people have written of Alzheimer’s disease as eloquently as John Bayley does in Elegy for Iris (Picador, 1999), his memoir of 45 years with the novelist Iris Murdoch, which inspired the film Iris. Among his observations:

“Our mode of communication seems like underwater sonar, each bouncing pulsations off the other, then listening for an echo.”

“Alzheimer’s is, in fact, like an insidious fog, barely noticeable until everything around has disappeared. After that, it is no longer possible to believe that a world outside fog exists.”

“The terror of being alone, of being cut off for even a few seconds from the familiar object, is a feature of Alzheimer’s. If Iris could climb inside my skin now, or enter me as if I had a pouch like a kangaroo, she would do so.”

Bayley also foreshadows Murdoch’s development of Alzheimer’s in describing the early years of their relationship:

“I was far too preoccupied at the time to think of such parallels, but it was like living in a fairy story – the kind with sinister overtones and not always a happy ending – in which a young man loves a beautiful maiden who returns his love but is always disappearing into some unknown and mysterious world, about which she will reveal nothing.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 367 other followers

%d bloggers like this: