August 30, 2011
Turn of Mind
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
2011 Atlantic Monthly Press
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)
"A uniquely entertaining murder mystery. LaPlante's portrayal of the prime suspect's escalating dementia is gripping, unnerving, and utterly brilliant."—Lisa Genova
A large sign is taped to the kitchen wall.
My name is Dr. Jennifer White
I am 64 years old. I have dementia.
My son, Mark, is 29. My daughter, Fiona, 24.
A caregiver, Magdalena, lives with me.
Already sold in eleven countries, Turn of Mind is a stunning first novel, both literary and thriller about a retired orthopedic surgeon with dementia. As the book opens, Dr. Jennifer White’s best friend, Amanda, who lived down the block, has been killed, and four fingers have been surgically removed. Dr. White is the prime suspect. And she herself doesn’t know whether she did it.
Told in her own voice, fractured and eloquent, a picture emerges of a complex family and the surprisingly intimate alliance between life-long friends—two proud, forceful women who were at times each other’s most formidable adversaries.
I loved this book! Almost as much as I loved Still Alice (Lisa Genova). I started reading it a few days before we flew out to Oregon for our family reunion, but set it aside because I was devouring it too quickly. I wanted to have something compelling to read on our long flights! And, oh, it turned out to be the perfect in-flight read. The short, succinct paragraphs (fragmented, really, to reflect the main character's state of mind) allowed for interruptions without losing the tempo of this fast-paced page-turner. I love a good mystery and enjoyed the suspense of this particular story, but as with Still Alice, it was the enlightening and thought-provoking glimpses into the life of a woman suffering from dementia that spoke to me.
I can still read, I’m not that far gone, not yet. No books anymore, but newspaper articles. Magazine pieces, if they’re short enough. I have a system. I take a sheet of lined paper. I write down notes, just like in medical school.
When I get confused, I read my notes. I refer back to them. I can take two hours getting through a single Tribune article, half a day to get through The New York Times. Now, as I sit at the table, I pick up a paper someone discarded, a pencil. I write in the margins as I read. These are Band-Aid solutions. The violent flare-ups continue. They have reaped what they sowed and should repent.
Afterward, I look at these notes but am left with nothing but a sense of unease, of uncontrol.
From my notebook:
A good day. Excellent day, my brain mostly clear. I performed a Mini-Cog test on myself. Uncertain of the year, month, and day, but confident of the season. Not sure of my age, but I recognized the woman I saw in the mirror. Still a touch of auburn in the hair, deep brown eyes unfaded, the lines around the eyes and forehead, if not exactly laugh lines, at least indicating a sense of humor.
I know my name: Jennifer White. I know my address: 2153 Sheffield. And spring has arrived.
Why am I so drawn to these stories? Am I preparing for the possibility of losing my memory? Am I simply being practical or is this more voyeuristic -- and perhaps more ominous -- in nature?
Just how would it feel to not know your own children? For you or for them?
We have a visitor, Jen. Aren’t you glad we had a bath? Look how nice your hair looks!
It is a face I have seen before. That’s what I am reduced to now. No more names. Just characteristics, if they are idiosyncratic enough, and knowing whether a face is familiar or unfamiliar.
And those are not absolute categories. I can be looking at a face that I have decided is unfamiliar only to have its features shift and reveal a visage that is not only known but beloved.
I didn’t recognize my own mother this morning, disguised as she was. But then she revealed herself. She cried as she held my hand. I comforted her as best I could. I explained that, yes, it had been a difficult birth, but I would be home soon, the baby was doing well. But where is James? [Jennifer’s deceased husband] I asked. Mom, Dad can’t be here right now. Why are you calling me Mom and him Dad? More tears.
And then my mother was gone.
Now this one. A different sort altogether.
And for the spouses and partners:
My life partner had Alzheimer’s. Early onset. She was a lot younger than you—only forty-five…
People think it’s just forgetting your keys, she says. Or the words for things. But there are the personality changes. The mood swings. The hostility and even violence. Even from the gentlest person in the world. You lose the person you love. And you are left with the shell…
And you are expected to go on loving them even when they are no longer there. You are supposed to be loyal. It’s not that other people expect it. It’s that you expect it of yourself. And you long for it to be over soon.
It broke my heart…
Turn of Mind is an exceptionally poignant and complex debut novel, and it still haunts me, as does Still Alice.
My friend and fellow blogger, Joy, had this to say:
Hooray! Another book gets added onto my Best Reads of 2011 list! Having a murder mystery intertwined with a dementia patient made for a very intriguing read. The progression of Jennifer's illness was depicted very well, and I could sympathize with her struggles. It was incredibly interesting to hear her thoughts as she went in and out of the here and now. I didn't become as attached to Jennifer, like I did with Alice in Still Alice (Genova), but I was certainly turning the pages just as fast. (Thoughts of Joy)
Go here to read her full review.
Go here to listen to an interview with Alice LaPlante on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR.
This is the New Zealand cover art. I think I prefer it over the U.S. version, don't you?