Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review - Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Jennifer White may or may not have killed her best friend, Amanda O’Toole. If she didn’t, someone in Chicago wants to make it look like Jennifer did. Jennifer, you see is a sixty-four-year-old, newly retired orthopedic surgeon, and one hand of Amanda’s body was found with four of her fingers surgically removed by someone who definitely knew what he or she was doing.

So begins the plot of Alice LaPlante’s debut novel, Turn of Mind. I thought it was an excellent way to draw the reader into the book because Jennifer White suffers from dementia. She can’t remember if she killed Amanda O’Toole or not. She can’t remember if she knows anything about Amanda’s murder. Most of the time, Jennifer can’t even remember that Amanda is dead. And even though Jennifer’s memory is crumbling, something nags at its edges, trying to force its way in, “something that resides in a sterile, brightly lit place where there is no room for shadows. The place for blood and bone. Yet shadows exist. And secrets.”

When the police learn that the two friends were heard arguing the very night Amanda was killed, they move Jennifer from a “person of interest” to the primary suspect. As fate – or literature – would have it, one of the police detectives investigating Amanda’s murder had a partner who suffered from Alzheimer’s. This makes the detective – a woman – very knowledgeable when eliciting information from Jennifer, and it makes eliciting that information necessary when it’s learned that Amanda and Jennifer had, not a warm and loving friendship, but one sometimes filled with betrayal and complications, instead. And, when Jennifer’s caregiver, Magdalena, points out that Jennifer no longer has access to any sharp objects, Jennifer, almost gleefully, opens a piano bench stuffed with junk and pulls out a rapier-shape scalpel to show the detective, a scalpel that’s perfect for removing someone’s fingers. When the police detective asks Jennifer why she thinks anyone, even a murderer, would do such a thing, Jennifer replies, “I’m not a psychiatrist," then goes on as if she is: “A hand without fingers can't easily grasp, can't easily hold on to things. It could be a message for someone perceived as greedy, mercenary. Or someone who won't let go emotionally.” Okay. Maybe.

Jennifer’s husband has passed away, but she has two interesting adult children living close to her own home in Chicago. Mark describes himself as a “tall, dark, handsome twenty-nine-year-old lawyer, with a bit of a substance abuse problem, looking for love and money in what are apparently all the wrong places.” He reminds Jennifer of her late husband.

Fiona, twenty-four, is a tenure-track professor, who describes herself as a “total freak with mother issues.” From the beginning, I greatly preferred Mark, substance abuse problems and all, but Jennifer seems to prefer Fiona. “Her I trust,” says Jennifer. “My Fiona. She places paper after paper in front of me, and I sign without reading.” (Never a good idea. Even if the person offering you the papers is your own daughter.)

In order to remain in her lovely, old Chicago house, a house that is only three doors down from the house in which Amanda lived, Jennifer has hired a caregiver, Magdalena. To aid her failing memory, Jennifer labels her photographs. She posts a sign on her kitchen wall that reads, “Live in the Moment.” And, she’s begun keeping a journal, a journal in which she and others – Magdalena, Mark, Fiona – all write. (Interestingly, there are conflicting notes from Mark and Fiona in Jennifer’s journal, and each child warns his/her mother not to trust the other.) The journal’s meant to serve as an anchor in Jennifer's life of confusion and uncertainty and fear, for Jennifer calls dementia “…a death sentence. The death of the mind. I've already given notice at the hospital, announced my retirement. I have started keeping a journal so I have some continuity in my life. But I won't be able to live on my own for very much longer.” Not even with Magdalena around.

Jennifer may have had to give up her illustrious career as a surgeon – one day in the OR, she even forgot what a surgical “clamp” was called and asked for “that shiny thing that pinches and holds” – and her volunteer work at a clinic for those without health insurance is over as well, but on good days, at least, she still has her memories. Memories of her late husband, of her children, of her travels to far-off places like St. Petersburg, Russia, and of course, memories of Amanda.

It’s through Jennifer’s journal reminiscences, on her good days, that we get to know Mark, Fiona, Amanda, the friends’ husbands, and what life was like for Jennifer prior to the onset of Alzheimer’s. We also get to know Jennifer, and if you’re like me, you won’t be surprised to learn that she was a woman who was highly intelligent, often brusque and dismissive, and at times, formidable. She had the strength to do what had to be done including keeping her marriage together after learning her husband was unfaithful.

Amanda, we come to learn, was a highly intelligent woman, too, and rather formidable, just like Jennifer. At times, Amanda was a good friend to Jennifer, but at other times, she competed for Fiona’s attention, and she proved – more than once – that she had a cruel streak. At one point in the book Jennifer calls Amanda “the inflictor and healer of my pain. Both.” Jennifer, according to Amanda, if we can rely on what Jennifer tells us, has narcissistic tendencies. She is, again according to Amanda, a woman who sees herself as “better” than others. “People,” Jennifer says, “who take this to an extreme are called sociopaths, Amanda tells me. You have certain tendencies. You should watch them.”

And Jennifer’s own illness is recorded, by her, in her journal, often in great detail:

This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient.

As Jennifer’s condition deteriorates and she becomes more and more dependent and childlike, the atmosphere of the book becomes one of palpable fear, and the images grow more and more haunting and unsettling. At night, Jennifer can be found wandering between her own brownstone and Amanda’s, puzzling over the police tape that cordons off her late friend’s living room. The sweltering heat of a Chicago summer is also brought to life in the pages of this book. You can feel the humidity rising and hear the summer insects whirring and buzzing in the air.

The visits from the police, of course, continue, and they grow more and more insistent and brutal as Jennifer gives them less and less. Of course, with her mind crumbling as it is, Jennifer can’t stand trial for murder, but if she’s found to have murdered Amanda, she will be sent to a state institution. The stakes are higher than they might seem at first glance.

Just as Jennifer is trapped inside a mind that is, in her words, “rotting out,” the first person point-of-view traps the reader as well. Everything is filtered through Jennifer’s unreliable memory, so it’s necessarily fragmented and rather staccato in terms of flow. Some readers will like this while others will be bothered it. I’ll admit, I’m a huge fan of William Faulkner and his long, flowing sentences and paragraphs, so I didn’t really enjoy the fragmentary nature of this book, though I do understand its necessity. Everything, after all, can’t be “long and flowing,” and fragmentary and staccato work well in this novel.

Employing Jennifer as the POV character does add tension and a sense of anxiety and immediacy to this narrative. We know the police are closing in on Jennifer, and we also know complete mental oblivion is closing in as well. This “closing in” adds a very claustrophobic element to the novel that serves it wonderfully. The author does have a rather sophisticated, if somewhat affected (at least in this book) prose style, and to her enormous credit, she eschews all sentimentality and never lets Jennifer descend into self-pity.

I didn’t fall completely in love with the book, though. While the character of Jennifer is rich and wonderfully complex, I found the other characters less-than-fully-realized, Amanda in particular, and I was terribly disappointed by this lack. True, we “know” the other characters only through Jennifer’s memories and recollections, and Jennifer, of course, is suffering from dementia. She does, however, have her “good” days during which her memory is crystal clear. I felt LaPlante could have given us a fuller picture of the supporting characters on one of Jennifer’s lucid days. Fiona and Mark don’t fare any better than Amanda, and the picture of the women’s husbands is particularly flat.

The other big disappointment I experienced when reading this book had to do with the mystery of “who killed Amanda?” Turn of Mind is not a suspenseful mystery by any means, nor is it a genuine “thriller.” The mystery part of this novel is really very amateurishly done. Most readers, I think, are going to figure things out pretty quickly. I know I did, and I’m not particularly good at figuring out “whodunit.” And because the book is being marketed as a “literary thriller,” I think many of its readers are going to be attracted to it because of its “thriller” qualities. Sadly, those readers are probably going to be disappointed.

Where this book really shines is in its presentation of Jennifer White and her struggle with dementia. Most of the time, I felt totally convinced that I was reading the “real” journal of a real life Alzheimer’s patient. Jennifer was that compelling and forceful. I especially liked the way LaPlante portrayed her protagonist’s vulnerability. That vulnerability kept Jennifer from lapsing into a caricature of a “tough talking dame.” It kept her credible.

Turn of Mind is a bleak, tragic book, and it certainly won’t lift your spirits, so please don’t expect it to. After all, Alzheimer’s is a bleak, tragic affliction. Despite the tragedy, there’s much beauty in the book as well. LaPlante has managed to capture the indomitability of the human spirit amid overwhelming pain and suffering. It’s this quality that lifts the book out of the sea of “every other book about Alzheimer’s sufferers” and elevates it into something more. And thankfully, this wonderful “something more” never fades, even as Jennifer’s mind continues to unravel at an ever-accelerating speed.

Sadly, as the book nears its end, some readers might feel Jennifer’s forgetfulness is something of a mercy after all.

4/5 (Only 1.5 stars for the mystery, though.)

Recommended: Yes, but read this book for the picture it paints of Jennifer White. It’s wonderful. Anyone looking for a good mystery won’t find it here. I do look forward to LaPlante’s next novel. As long as it isn’t a mystery, that is.

Note: Alice LaPlante teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University and Stanford University where she has a Wallace Stegner fellowship. She lives in Palo Alto, California.

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