I read the first page of Alice LaPlante’s debut novel, Turn of Mind and immediately knew I would make it a Prepub Pick. The set-up is interesting enough‚ retired orthopedic surgeon Jennifer White is slowly losing her mind to dementia and may in fact be responsible for the murder of her best friend‚ but what makes the narrative immediately arresting is the language itself. The book is told in the first person, in a voice at once tough and vulnerable, crotchety and abashed, and with a fragmented lyricism that seems to capture exactly the workings of a smart but failing mind. You can judge for yourself by the excerpt below, which opens the book. But first, Atlantic Monthly editor Elisabeth Schmitz discusses her latest find, which is already generating enthusiasm‚ it’s been sold to 11 countries.
Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is your biggest book in July. In a word, why?
We’ve found that summer is a terrific time to publish literary but also accessible and compelling fiction (i.e., Lily King), as not everybody is looking for chick lit, page-turning ease on the beach. Also, because this is Alice’s debut novel and she’s not yet well known, we wanted plenty of time to spread galleys, do some prebook publication touring, and build excitement from booksellers and librarians and media early.
Having a protagonist succumbing to dementia could be a downer, but so far it’s not.
Partly it’s due to Jennifer’s character. She is a smart, opinionated, unsentimental professional who has very clear if circuitous recollections of a somewhat unconventional life (for the time at least) and is not indulgent, nostalgic or self-pitying. I think her honest, sometimes ironic and amusing, voice is refreshingly edgy. In the way that Patricia Highsmith’s characters often are. Also, Alice’s writing style‚ pristine and poetic‚ keeps us alert and curious throughout. It’s hard to be depressed reading this because Jennifer is too fascinating a personality.
As we baby boomers famously hit old age, I feel like I’m seeing more fiction grappling with that very topic: old age, failing minds, failing bodies. Will we be seeing more on this, or do you think that’s totally coincidental to this particular book?
Goodness, I have no idea. We fell in love with Alice’s writing and her story with no thoughts at all as to baby boomer interests. We’ll see soon enough, I guess!
And now here is the excerpt.
Something has happened. You can always tell. You come to and find wreckage: a smashed lamp, a devastated human face that shivers on the verge of being recognizable. Occasionally someone in uniform: a paramedic, a nurse. A hand extended with a pill. Or poised to insert a needle.
This time, I am in a room, sitting on a cold metal folding chair. The room is not familiar, but I am used to that. I look for clues. An office-like setting, long and crowded with desks and computers, messy with papers. No windows.
I can barely make out the pale green of the walls, so many posters, clippings, and bulletins tacked up. Fluorescent lighting casting a pall. Men and women talking; to one another, not to me. Some wearing baggy suits, some in jeans. And more uniforms. My guess is that a smile would be inappropriate. Fear might not be.
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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 to get 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.
Afteward, I look at these notes but am left with nothing but a sense of unease, of uncontrol. A heavy man in blue is hovering, his hand inches away from my upper arm. Ready to grab. Restrain.
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Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?
I want to go home. I want to go home. Am I in Philadelphia. There was the house on Walnut Lane. We played kickball in the streets.
No, this is Chicago. Ward Forty-three, Precinct Twenty-one. We have called your son and daughter. You can decide at any time from this moment on to terminate the interview and exercise these rights.
I wish to terminate. Yes.
Credit: TURN OF MIND by Alice LaPlante, to be published by Atlantic Monthly Press, July 2011. All rights reserved.