Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante (and some thoughts on Alzheimers)

The only reason I picked this book up was because it was the first of this year's Stanford Book Salon's selections. I have a deep, unholy fear of developing Alzheimer's and as a result, avoid anything that has the slightest hint of the disease. Reading this book, it is unavoidable.  Alzheimer's enters your life, your mind, your thoughts, and your world.  But it's only fair. It has done the same to the narrator of the story, Jennifer White, a recently widowed, gifted and brilliant orthopedic surgeon.

Alice LaPlante does a magnificent job of portraying Dr White's world through the use of a notebook she uses to write a record of her days and life, and then through Dr White's own thoughts. She's progressed beyond the phase of lists and sticky notes plastering her home. When the diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's hit, she retired from her profession, and engaged a live-in companion/helper. The book opens shortly after Dr White's best friend, Amanda, is found murdered, with the fingers of one hand neatly amputated. Dr White is "a person of interest" in the case.

The reader is taken through the twists and turns of Jennifer White's diseased mind. We meet her children, her husband, and friend through memories that seem as present day to Dr White. Woven through this world is the underlying investigation of Amanda's death. Dr White is at some moments totally in the present, fully aware of her condition, competent and lucid. At other times, she is (and I mean this in the nicest of ways) crazy as a loon, paranoid, sly, and cunning. It is brilliant, totally real, brilliant.

One of the interesting aspects of this novel for me was that I was so drawn into it, but really didn't like almost all of the characters. Dr White was a highly regarded surgeon, but as a mother and wife, she was less than stellar.  Her kids both "have issues." Her husband wasn't all he was cracked up to be. Even the murdered Amanda was a not-so-nice person. The best character for me was the police investigator, gave a beautiful description of what it is to lose a loved one to this horrible illness. I found myself speaking similar words to my aunt, who just had my uncle placed in a long care facility for people with Alzheimer's.  Only it wasn't my uncle.  He'd left us long ago, for the most part. It has been years since we dealt with just forgetfulness. What loved ones, and even the person themselves, is unprepared for is that the entire personality can change, and the person you love leaves you a thousand different ways, replaced by someone totally unfamiliar. They can be vicious and angry. They can be charming. But they never again are the person you knew. Yet you lose them over and over, every day.

This was a compelling book, both heart-wrenching and beautifully drawn. It's yet one more reason I am grateful to the SBS for taking me outside my comfort zone, into the world of amazing writing.

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