Sunday, October 30, 2011

Alice LaPlante's Knockout Debut

Trust me, you will not be able to forget Dr. Jennifer White! This woman once excelled in her chosen field. As a renowned orthopedic surgeon who did not suffer fools gladly, she was a formidable presence in the OR, in the classroom, and even at home. She commanded respect and, no matter how brittle, she received love from her husband James, her kids Mark and Fiona, and a semblance of that complicated emotion from her best and only friend Amanda, a woman with whom she had a long-standing, prickly relationship, yet trusted with godparenting her children.

I speak of Dr. White in the past tense though Alice LaPlante presents Dr. White as the present tense narrator in her outstanding, unique, and yes, deeply disturbing debut novel, Turn of Mind. Dr. White suffers from early onset Alzheimers disease but is still able to live in her family home with a permanent care-giver as long as the money holds out and she behaves relatively well.

But readers learn, through Jennifer's stream of consciousness narration, that she is losing ground daily, a trait of early onset vs. the more dementia type alzheimer's which attacks later in life. What is sinister and devious about the disease is the roller coaster nature of conscious thought, capable of recalling exact details of long ago incidences yet unable to recognize Fiona or Mark when they come to visit. Her addled mind though, is still able to discern who means harm and who is caring or neutral in terms of her well being.

It's a remarkable, realistic, terrifying journey that LaPlante takes us on. The author's research into diseases of the brain must have been inordinately in-depth to create such a multi-faceted character, imperious, hard nosed, funny, and oh so sympathetic, even if we believe that she murdered her friend Amanda and surgically removed four fingers from one hand.

The police investigation of Amanda's death, with Dr. White at its core, is the ostensible subject of this book, but the subtext is what really keeps you reading late into the night. Family secrets are alluded to in snippets of Jennifer's memories, in the diary that visitors write in when they come so that Jennifer can keep a handle on her days, and in the tense conversations she often has with her troubled son Mark or with Fiona, who holds the purse strings.

LaPlante teaches creative writing at Stanford, no surprise there. She doles out clues, stirs in a few red herrings, throws us off the scent (though I managed to sniff it out), presenting us with a novel that's difficult to classify and all the better for that. It's a psychological thriller, a murder mystery, a character study, and a dysfunctional family drama, rolled into one knockout book. Unlike Lisa Genova's Still Alice, it isn't really about the disease per se, though it still convinced me to run, not walk, to a lawyer and get that will updated.

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