'Turn of Mind': Alice LaPlante's novel of friendship, memory and murder
Alice LaPlante's debut novel "Turn of Mind" features a hand surgeon with Alzheimer's who may or may not be complicit in her best friend's death. LaPlante will read July 19 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Alice LaPlanteThe author of "Turn of Mind" will read at 7 p.m. July 19 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com). She will read at 7 p.m. July 20 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
'Turn of Mind'
by Alice LaPlante
Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pp., $24
In her debut novel "Turn of Mind," Alice LaPlante trods the well-worn path of employing a mentally deranged or disabled narrator who's implicated in a murder. Inhabiting the limited minds of such storytellers is a tool used by writers from Dostoevsky to Mark Haddon ("The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time"). For us, the supposedly normal, seeing the truth through the scrim of an unreliable perspective makes the story more layered and, paradoxically, its meaning clearer.
"Turn of Mind" has its own contemporary twist on this device. The narrator, Dr. Jennifer White, was not only the victim's best friend but is also the prime suspect in the killing. From the get-go, it's clear the 65-year-old Chicago hand surgeon, now retired, either killed her neighbor and confidante Amanda O'Toole, or someone else made it look as if she did. Four of Amanda's fingers were surgically removed as part of the slaying.
Jennifer might confess if she could. But because she has Alzheimer's, she can't remember if she did it.
So how does LaPlante, who teaches writing at Stanford and San Francisco State, pull a story out of someone with no memory? In a word: deftly. She employs a journal in which both the doctor and those around her record their interactions and recollections. She lets the story fall on the page in fragments — of conversations, memories, dialogue — that reflect Jennifer's state of mind.
The picture that emerges shows a woman who was smart, brusque and daunting — almost a caricature of the egocentric surgeon — in her day. She kept her marriage together even though her husband, now dead, was dishonest and unfaithful. Although her two adult children are bright and well-educated, Mark is a substance abuser, and Fiona a self-confessed "total freak with mother issues."
The victim, Amanda, was another high achiever, with a cruel streak. She competed for Fiona's affections and exposed Jennifer's own infidelity. But she also rescued her friend after she fell into a deep depression over the state of her marriage.
Their long and complicated relationship shades the detective's question when she asks Jennifer why someone would have cut off the victim's fingers.
"I'm not a psychiatrist," Jennifer replies crisply, then speculates: "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."
This response is one of many indicators that LaPlante has intentions other than creating a clever whodunit. "Turn of Mind" probes a range of topics, not thoroughly but with insight. Among them are the dynamics between two strong-willed friends, marital dysfunction, parent-child relations, and the vulnerability of a person adrift in the murky sea of dementia.
On this last score, the writer has done yeoman's work, using small acts to signify the larger changes in Jennifer's personality. Sometimes, she is out of control. Other times, she is childlike. When her caregiver insists Jennifer has no access to sharp objects, the doctor gleefully retrieves a scalpel handle and blades from the stash she keeps hidden in the piano. This lack of guile also suggests the loss of her reasoning power and, perhaps, the moral compass that would have prevented her from doing violence.
If this portrait is correct — and it seems consistent with my own experience — Jennifer is a sad but true reflection of a disease that ebbs and flows unmercifully. One minute she stares in wonder at a commonplace item like a toothbrush, the next she reacts with almost animal cunning, and the next — almost miraculously — she displays the most salient facets of her former self. The novel's ending alone will show what a long and winding road it is from confused to comatose.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."
Trending on seattletimes.com
Most viewed photo galleries
The Morning Memo
The Morning Memo jump starts your day with weather, traffic and news
Autos news and research
Sign up for our newsletter
Get creative suggestions for making your house a home weekly in your inbox!