It's odd that I actually read Alice LaPlante's Turn of Mind. Here's the thing: the story is told from the point of view of an elderly woman with Alzheimer's. My mother has Alzheimer's; this summer, she hit some crisis points, definitely deteriorated after coasting for several months, even spent a couple of weeks in a senior psych ward while they tried to determine if it was the Alzheimer's or something else--illness? Meds?--that was causing her to act out very aggressively. (Believe it or not, a common cause of behavioral problems in dementia patients is a bladder infection. Yup.)
So I've kind of had my fill of Alzheimer's anything right now. I passed up going to see the Planet of the Apes movie, even though I'm very fond of summer blockbusters, because I didn't think I could handle watching John Lithgow play an Alzheimer's patient. I heard about this book and thought, oh, I should probably read that someda.; I got a copy and dropped it on the kitchen counter where I figured I'd leave it until I got around to shelving it.
But I picked it up and read the opening pages, and I was hooked.
Dr. Jennifer White is a recently widowed Alzheimer's victim who is being accused of the murder of her best friend, and she can't recall if she did it or not. While technically this is a mystery, that part of the plot is very secondary to the characters and to what is happening to her.In fact, frankly, the murder (to me) is the least interesting thing in the book, although the relationships between all the major players was fascinating.
The narration is what knocked me out. A big chunk of the book is in first person--think about that! First person, from the POV of a woman with Alzheimer's! I'm not an expert on Alzheimer's by any means, but there were several times when I'd think, oh yeah, sounds just like my mother. Later in the book the narration gently changes to second person, and then finally, as Jennifer declines more and more, it goes to third person.
Normally this kind of narration shift would strike me as tricksy, but here it seems like the absolutely right thing to do, the most compassionate for the reader, for how far do we really want to go down Jennifer's rabbit hole? The first person parts are harrowing; to stay with her for the continued disintegration would be too much.
While not giving spoilers, I think it's safe for me to point out that people with Alzheimer's today aren't getting happy endings. That said, I find myself going back to the last sentence of this book again and again, as it offers the smallest possible light in this woman's darkness. (Yes, I'm all about the cliches today, deal with it.) I was recently involved in an online discussion about whether or not an Alzheimer's patient who's far down the path can possibly really feel happiness or contentment. Jennifer's story is a painful one, especially in her relationships with her drug-addicted lawyer son and her well-meaning but emotionally crumbling professor daughter. But is there any part of her left in this degrading end of her life that can bring her anything resembling joy and peace? Maybe, in small, tiny ways.
I can only assume that LaPlante has known someone with Alzheimer's. She nails so many things:
"It is all clear. So who are all these other people in my house? People, strangers, everywhere. A blond woman I don't recognize in my kitchen drinking tea. A glimpse of movement from the den. Then I turn the corner into the living room and find yet another face. I ask, So who are you? Who are all the others? Do you know her? I point to the kitchen, and they laugh."
"Every death of every cell pricks me where I am most tender. And people I don't know patronize me. They hug me. They attempt to hold my hand. They call me prepubescent nicknames: Jen. Jenny. I bitterly accept the fact that I am famous, beloved even, among strangers. A celebrity! A legend in my own mind."
"Ask a dementia patient who she loves, and she draws a blank. Ask her who she hates, and the memories come flooding in."
All the words I can think of to describe this book are pretty much cliches: harrowing, riveting, tour de force. Sorry I can't do better. Oddly, I felt better for having read it. Like I had a better sense of what my mother might be going through, even though it's very painful for her, and for us. (Well, she hasn't been accused of murder, so there's that.)
I'm just sorry for LaPlante that she had to live through the writing of it.