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 Story’s: “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.