The Art of Forgetting

  • Camille Noe Pagan
  • Dutton
  • 284 pp.

This skillful debut novel explores the course of friendship after a traumatic brain injury changes things.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

Two best friends from Ann Arbor Michigan are living their dream in Manhattan. Julia is senior publicist for the New York City Ballet while Marissa works as an editor at Svelte, a health magazine that “essentially runs the same 10 articles over and over, each one tweaked ever so slightly so it doesn’t sound identical to the last metabolism stories.” Then Julia suffers a traumatic head injury when she steps off the curb and is struck by a cab. The focus of Camille Noe Pagan’s lively debut novel, The Art of Forgetting, is Julia’s journey forward, which raises interesting questions for best friend Marissa about the nature of memory and identity.

Julia’s brain injury changes her personality. She suffers sudden migraines. Her voice becomes high pitched and perky and she has a new fondness for the color purple. Frontal lobe damage causes her to be unflinchingly honest. Pagan writes particularly well about the fabrication of false memories. Since a brain injury sufferer must sometimes recall a past event dozens of times before it finally clicks, Marissa wonders “if the recalled memory is actually the real one or if it’s just something the person eventually relearns.”

Female relationships are explored from many angles. Women support each other, but they also tear each other down. As Marissa helps Julia through recovery, some of her own problems come under scrutiny: weight gain and weight loss, self-esteem and relationship issues. Scenes between Marissa and her mother, and her boyfriend’s mother, Joyel, and a woman she meets in the park, as well as those settings where Marissa mentors 5th-grade girls, are particularly resonant.

Marissa recalls Julia’s declaration that “No man is as amazing as our friendship. That’s what’s important … bringing her face so close to mine that I could smell coffee on her breath.” Because of their closeness, Marissa gives up her boyfriend, Nathan, when she learns that Julia has a long-distance crush on him. This may be convincing teenage behavior, but it seems implausible for women who are in their 20s at the time. (“I love you,” Marissa tells Nathan “but this will never work, Because I love my best friend more than you.”)

In such passages, I found myself thinking that the emotional bond between Julia and Marissa could have been crafted more deftly. Similarly, Marissa’s awkward behavior with Nathan later on, after Julia’s accident, didn’t ring true. I was expecting more substance, and their dialogue about Julia felt like a missed opportunity. Another example is when Julia goes home to be cared for by her parents in Ann Arbor. Now in their early 30s, these friends always head for Julia’s bedroom when Marissa visits, as if they are still teenagers.

In fact, Marissa’s character is more enthusiastic about her 300-thread count sheets and dish of ice cream than about the one sexual encounter described in the book, a quickie with boyfriend Dave. We are told he charms all the women he meets, but his charm doesn’t lift off the page because he is described mostly in aesthetic terms. You get little sense of his chemistry with Marissa, especially as she bemoans that she really wants to talk to Julia, not Dave. With her best friend so fundamentally altered, Marissa feels alone.

The emotional core of the book is obviously female friendship, but I felt the passages where Marissa realizes that she has selective memories of past events, and where she develops a deeper sense of fulfillment and purpose, would have been more powerful if the male characters had been more fully drawn.

Perhaps I’m picky because the first pages of The Art of Forgetting suggest that Pagan could have written a more nuanced novel. But in the end, the lively writing made this book a page-turner and an informative read. Pagan has done her research on brain trauma and it shows. A resource section in the back of the book explains that an estimated 1.4 to 1.7 million people suffer from brain injury each year. The Art of Forgetting goes a long way towards exploring some of the symptoms and fallout associated with traumatic brain injury and will no doubt turn a spotlight on the issue.

Amanda Holmes Duffy teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College. She has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker. Her stories, published under Amanda Holmes, have appeared in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. “Russian Music Lessons” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of Northern Virginia Review.

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