How does an author write from the point of view of someone she couldn't, by definition, ever fully understand? Doesn't this fly in the face of all those writing instructors who advise writers to understand their characters so thoroughly that they know (even if they don't always tell) what they had for breakfast? The very idea seems, if not thoroughly impossible, at least challenging in the extreme, too daunting for most first novelists, to be sure. But not for Alice LaPlante. This established writer (a creative writing teacher and author of a writing textbook, among other books) sets herself a seemingly unworkable premise for her debut novel, and then proceeds to execute it with skill and elegance that belie her relative inexperience with fiction.
"LaPlante's real achievement here is creating a character who --- even in the midst of losing her mind --- is concrete, complicated, smart and sympathetic."
The protagonist of TURN OF MIND is Jennifer White, a noted surgeon who is now retired. This ambitious, accomplished physician and gifted, demanding teacher did not retire in order to travel or spend time with her family, or any of the thousand other reasons people might choose to walk away from a job they love.
No, Jennifer's reason for leaving medicine is that she has developed Alzheimer's.
Jennifer's most constant companion becomes her notebook, in which she writes her thoughts and feelings on her more lucid days and reads the stories and sentiments, the letters and anecdotes left there by her friends and family. These relationships have grown more complicated, though, as her condition deteriorates. She alternately mistrusts and doesn't recognize Magdalena, her live-in caregiver. She forgets the names and relationships of her two grown children. At times, she's convinced that her husband James is still alive; at others, she believes her own mother (who has actually been dead for 20 years) just passed away. Jennifer has no choice but to live in the present. The future is unimaginable, and the past --- or at least her memories of it --- can't be trusted.
Readers occasionally can glimpse Jennifer's former brilliance, as she engages in sophisticated discussions --- even philosophical ones --- with those willing to engage her in conversation. Her state of mind, however, can turn on a dime, as when she finishes a stimulating conversation with her son only to become entranced with the process of repeatedly turning a light switch on and off. Her behavior can be even more erratic --- taking off her clothes or relieving herself in public, for example --- and she also has episodes approaching violence.
That's one of the reasons why she's a lead suspect when her best friend turns up dead, murdered, with four of her fingers neatly severed by a scalpel. But how can Jennifer defend herself? How can she even provide good testimony, when she not only doesn’t recall where she was the night of the murder, she can't even remember that her friend is gone?
Constructing a murder mystery around a suspect, or even an investigator with memory loss or brain damage, is nothing new. But one of the unique aspects of TURN OF MIND is the way in which LaPlante uses Jennifer's first-person narration both to build character and advance the plot. She masterfully and effectively utilizes Jennifer's notebook entries as well as conversations to develop plot and elicit empathy for this complicated protagonist. Jennifer's thinking is chaotic and unpredictable, moving freely backward and forward in time, often leaving readers almost as questioning and disoriented as she herself is. Although she is too prickly, too real to evoke pity, that's just as well. LaPlante's real achievement here is creating a character who --- even in the midst of losing her mind --- is concrete, complicated, smart and sympathetic.
Jennifer's clear-eyed awareness of her deteriorating condition --- her moments of utter clarity in which she recognizes her fate and either rages against it or resigns herself to it --- is what makes TURN OF MIND, and this unforgettable character, both painfully sad and utterly true.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 5, 2011