One-Minute Book Reviews

January 15, 2012

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

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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.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Alice LaPlante’s Alzheimer’s Murder Mystery, ‘Turn of Mind’

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:53 am
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Turn of Mind
By Alice LaPlante
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that would like to use the guide may link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

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?

Vital statistics:

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.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They encourage cheerleading more than a frank discussion of the merits and demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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.

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
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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.

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