Alice Laxton's life starts to unravel in her senior year of college, and she soon begins a descent into the black hole of mental illness --- a world in which she hears voices and imagines bizarre incidents. Convinced by her legalistic church that her daughter is demon-possessed, Alice's mother relies on their pastor to heal Alice. When that fails, Alice ends up in an institution, escapes, and takes to the streets.
Through a couple of homeless gay guys, Tweedle Dweeb and Tweedle Dumb, Alice meets a semi-eccentric woman named Faye, a "cat lady" who has agreed to help nurse her newfound pet, Cheshire, back to health. But she proves to be much more than a healer of felines --- she becomes the means by which Alice has the greatest hope of finding her own healing.
Yes, the Alice in Wonderland references are intentional, and Melody Carlson handles them skillfully. Even more impressive is her deft handling of Alice's mental state ---her vacillation between lucidity and paranoia, her resistance to medication and other forms of treatment, her brilliant insights and delusional "knowledge." Everything rings true here; Carlson's peek into the mind of a schizophrenic is eminently believable. Christians who have suffered from mental illness, or whose loved ones have, will find much here that resonates with their own experiences.
With this book, Carlson has established herself as an author with genuine crossover potential. Her characters come across as living, breathing people --- quite an achievement in any genre. Alice is an intelligent but otherwise fairly ordinary person, so unlike the typical female protagonists (you know the kind --- beautiful, headstrong young women with emerald-green eyes) who populate many CBA novels. As the most fully developed example of authentic Christlikeness in the book, Faye is wonderfully different from the cardboard Christian role models you see in both fiction and nonfiction. Simon, Faye's nephew, is neither ruggedly handsome nor strong and silent --- he's just a guy, a caring and giving guy, but a guy nonetheless. And that makes him all the more appealing. Like Anne Tyler, Carlson knows that ordinary people become extraordinary when you take the time to examine their lives.
FINDING ALICE is a truly remarkable book for a CBA publisher. WaterBrook deserves a great deal of credit for publishing it. Carlson, with 90 books and numerous awards to her credit, could easily have bailed on the CBA had she not found a willing Christian publisher.
I could quibble about a few details, and in fact will. Quibble number one: When Alice gets high for the first time and is found out by her mother and some finger-pointing church ladies, she suddenly finds the inner resolve to stand up to them. Now, I'm not saying where I got this insight from, but as I understand it, grass doesn't exactly make a person assertive --- goofily defiant maybe, but not imbued with steely determination like Alice is. Number two: The key to understanding the "golden key" that Alice believes God has set before her becomes obvious too soon, in a scene in which she has been invited to help decorate for a Christmas party. Number three: Toward the end, starting with a chapter titled "Waking," there's a subtle shift in the way Carlson tells the story that causes it to lose some of its immediacy.
Number four is a bit more than a quibble for me, but I suspect it won't be a problem for many, if not most, readers. It's the way one storyline ends. The problem --- and I can't be more specific here --- arises in the last three pages, in which something predictable happens despite all indications to the contrary and Carlson's efforts to make the reader think it can't happen. But I could feel it coming and I was hoping it wouldn't. It tied up one sub-story a bit too neatly, which was disappointing, though I do think many readers will love it. And to Carlson's credit, she did leave a few ends dangling, most notably Alice's complicated relationship with her mother.
The bottom line is that FINDING ALICE is one of those rare finds in the Christian market, a novel that is satisfying on so many levels. To name a few, there's authenticity, plotline, characterization and --- the trickiest element of all, it seems, for most CBA authors --- dialogue. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 13, 2011