Turn of Mind
- Alice LaPlante
- Atlantic Monthly Press
- 320 pp.
- August 1, 2011
For a gifted women surgeon in the drifting fog of dementia, the brutal murder of her best friend remains a mystery.
Reviewed by Kelly DiNardo
“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.”
With these opening lines, the mystery for both the reader and the protagonist of Alice LaPlante’s debut novel, Turn of Mind, begins.
Jennifer White, a retired orthopedic surgeon, may have brutally murdered her best friend, but Dr. White suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the inevitable and irrevocable slide into dementia means the crime is a mystery even to her.
The circumstantial evidence is strong, leading the Chicago police and White’s own family to suspect she is guilty. White and Amanda O’Toole, a retired schoolteacher, had a roller coaster friendship, one with long periods of strong camaraderie but deep dips of jealousy and manipulation by O’Toole that occasionally plummeted into vicious fights. Most damaging, however, is the nature of the murder. After a blow to the head killed O’Toole, four fingers were sliced off with suspicious expertise. White’s medical expertise is in hand surgery.
White remembers nothing. Most days she does not even realize her friend is dead.
LaPlante creates just enough doubt to keep the reader wondering, but it is not the murderous whodunit that keeps one turning the pages. Using White as the narrator, LaPlante, who teaches writing at Stanford, reveals the story in first-person anecdotes, fragments without any chronological order, alternately confusing and clear — much as they would be for someone in the throes of such a disease. She uses a journal in which both White and those around her record their interactions and memories. The result is a story made up of snippets of conversations and memories, which adds to the fractured feel.
It is a conceit that LaPlante pulls off gracefully, painting a compelling portrait of the “half state” where those living with Alzheimer’s reside. White requires assistance from a full-time, in-home caregiver for even the most basic tasks. She regularly fails to recognize her own children and is prone to wandering. In one scene, White forgets to take off her nightgown and showers fully dressed. In another, she takes off her clothes in public.
The disease also wreaks havoc on White’s emotions, leaving her less able to manage them and making her far more volatile. Her bouts of erratic, fiery behavior only add to the suspicions she murdered O’Toole. But these descents of emotional turbulence, dependency and forgetfulness are interspersed with moments of calmness, self-reliance and clarity. In one of her wanderings, White ends up at the free clinic for which she once volunteered and successfully treats a patient before being discovered.
It is this roller coaster that is most terrifying for White. On good days, she remembers that she forgets. On good days, she remembers her friend has been murdered. On good days, she fears she may remember that she was involved. And that makes her “beg for exactly the things I’ve been battling all these long months: sweet oblivion.”
White does not want to solve the mystery. For the reader, the real mystery is not who killed Amanda O’Toole, but will Jennifer White remember.
Kelly DiNardo is a writer whose work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, Glamour, Redbook and others. Her first book, Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique, was released in 2007.