Turn of Mind
Alice LaPlante, 2011
Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is a spellbinding novel about the disintegration of a strong woman’s mind and the unhinging of her family. Dr. Jennifer White, recently widowed and a newly retired orthopedic surgeon, is entering the beginning stages of dementia—where the impossibility of recognizing reality can be both a blessing and a curse.
As the story opens, Jennifer’s life-long friend and neighbor, Amanda, has been killed, and four fingers surgically removed. Dr. White is the prime suspect in the murder and she herself doesn’t know if she did it or not. Narrated in her voice, fractured and eloquent, a picture emerges of the surprisingly intimate, complex alliance between this pair—two proud, forceful women who were at times each other’s most formidable adversaries.
The women’s thirty-year friendship deeply entangled their families, and as the narrative unfolds we see that things were not always as they seemed. Jennifer’s deceased husband, James, is clearly not the scion he was thought to be. Her two grown children—Mark, a lawyer, and Fiona, a professor, who now have power over their mother’s medical and financial decisions respectively—have agendas of their own. And Magdalena, her brusque live-in caretaker, has a past she hides. As the investigation intensifies, a chilling question persists: is Dr. Jennifer White’s shattered memory preventing her from revealing the truth or helping her to hide it?
Told through the voice of a woman with a powerful intellect that is maddeningly slipping away, Turn of Mind is not only a suspenseful psychological thriller that pulses with intensity but also a brilliant portrayal of the fragility of consciousness and memory, and of a mind finally turning on itself. (From the publisher.)
• Raised—Chicago, Illinois, USA
• Education—B.A., M.B.A., University of Illinois
• Awards—Wallace Stegner Fellowship; Welcome Prize
• Currently—lives in Palo Alto, California
Alice LaPlante is an award-winning fiction writer and university creative writing instructor. She was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and teaches creative writing at both Stanford and San Francisco State University. The author of both fiction and nonfiction books, Alice includes among her publications a writing textbook, Method and Madness: The Making of a Story (2009), Playing For Profit: How Digital Entertainment is Making Big Business Out of Child's Play (2000); and Passion to Profits: Business for Non-Business Majors (2008).
Her novel, Turn of Mind (2011) became a New York Times, NPR, and American Independent Booksellers Association bestseller within a month of release. Turn of Mind was also designated a New York Times Editors' Choice, an NPR, O Magazine, Vogue, and Globe and Mail Summer Reading Pick, and is featured in Barnes and Noble 2011 Discover Great New Writers program. Turn of Mind was also the first work of fiction to win the Welcome Prize.
Three years later, in 2014, LaPlante published her second novel, A Circle of Wives, about the murder of a respected plastic surgeon, who is later discoverd to have been a polygamist.
Alice also has more than 25 years experience as an award-winning journalist, corporate editorial consultant, writing coach, and university-level writing instructor. She has written for Forbes ASAP, BusinessWeek, ComputerWorld, InformationWeek, Discover, and a host of other national publications. Her corporate clients include some of the best-known brands in the technology industry, including IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Symantec, Deloitte, and HP. (From the author's website.)
This is a portrait of an unstable mind, an expansive, expertly wrought imagining of memory's failures and potential.... Alzheimer's is bleak territory, and to saddle Jennifer with suspected murder seems cruel and unusual punishment. But in LaPlante's vivid prose, her waning mind proves a prism instead of a prison, her memory refracted to rich, sensual effect.... The twists and turns of mind this novel charts are haunting and original.
Zoe Slutzky - New York Times
To call Turn of Mind a thriller—or a chronicle of illness, or a saga of friendship for that matter—would confine it to a genre it transcends. This is a portrait of an unstable mind, an expansive, expertly wrought imagining of memory’s failures and potential.... In LaPlante’s vivid prose, [Dr. White’s] waning mind proves a prism instead of a prison, her memory refracted to rich, sensual effect. There are moments of steely, surgical calm, the language tight and fractured..and there are moments of blooming, antic poetry.... LaPlante has imagined a lunatic landscape well. The twists and turns of mind this novel charts are haunting and original.
New York Times Book Review
Gripping.... Skilfull.... Unique.... [A] compelling whodunit.... LaPlante has created an unforgettable portrait of the process of forgetting.
Washington Post Book World
Rare.... LaPlante's fine novel is both lyrical and shocking.
Expertly paced.... A stunning act of imagination.
A page-turner.... Creates a startling range and texture of fear. From agonizing, slow-motion-car-crash moments to the ironic frissons of a good horror movie, [LaPlante] hits every bell.... The complexity never fades.... The razor sharp quality of [Jennifer's] thoughts, even at their most fragmented, gives her entire ordeal a "Twilight Zone" feel. Up until the final stages of the disease, she still somehow manages to retain the quality of a lone sane person adrift in a world that definitely isn't.
Los Angeles Times
Remarkably poignant.... An artful, ambitious, and arresting attempt to capture the thoughts and feelings, by turns confused, conspiratorial, canny, and clear, of a person in the throes of mental illness.... LaPlante reminds us all, passionately, that no matter what the state of our health, reality can be elusive and subjective.
San Francisco Chronicle
How does LaPlante pull a story out of [a protagonist] with no memory? In a word: deftly.... A clever whodunit.... If this portrait is correct, Jennifer is a sad but true reflection of a disease that ebbs and flows unmercifully. One minute she stares in wonder at a commonplace item like a toothbrush, the next she reacts with almost animal cunning, and the next—almost miraculously—she displays the most salient facets of her former self. The novel’s ending alone will show what a long and winding road it is from confused to comatose.
Unforgettable.... It sounds like an almost impossible task: to write a murder mystery from the perspective of a suspect with Alzheimer's. And yet LaPlante pulls it off and with flair.... Jennifer is a hard, funny, acerbic woman when she is able to marshal her wandering wits.... Fragmented and disorienting.... [A] distressingly believable portrait of a mind sinking into dementia.
Haunting.... Blackly humorous.... Remarkable.... [Told in] the crisp, super-intelligent, and brutally confused voice of Dr. Jennifer White.... LaPlante is certain in her footing—the verisimilitude here is unnerving...[as] she takes us into a world of gauzy shadows and scattered puzzle pieces.
This poignant debut immerses us in dementia’s complex choreography.... Dr. White is...by turns brilliant, hallucinatory, and heartbreakingly vulnerable.... [A] lyrical mosaic, an indelible portrait of a disappearing mind.
Impressive.... Part mystery novel, part family drama.... LaPlante has a gift for rhythm, crafting rat-a-tat passages that are their own pleasures.... It’s no small feat that LaPlante manages to spin a coherent tale despite her main character’s profound disorientation.
This book is to 2011 what Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One was to 2010—the dread-filled, un-putdownable page turner.... Skillfully written in the memory-loss first person, the book combines murder mystery with family drama, bringing new meaning to the term ‘psychological thriller.’
This dazzlingly adroit debut novel is full of suspense, rueful humor, and scalpel-sharp insights into the intricacies of love and friendship—as well as the resilience of the human spirit.
LaPlante's impressive first novel sensitively explores the mental disintegration of widowed 64-year-old Jennifer White, a once-lauded Chicago hand surgeon, who charts her own experiences with Alzheimer's both consciously, in notes she writes to herself and thoughts she shares, and unconsciously, as she records conversations and actions she witnesses but doesn't understand. When someone fatally bludgeons Jennifer's best friend, 75-year-old Amanda O'Toole, who lives just three doors away, suspicion falls on Jennifer because the killer surgically removed four fingers from Amanda's right hand. In a satisfying twist, Jennifer honestly doesn't know herself whether she committed the murder. Jennifer's 29-year-old lawyer son, Mark, wishes to have his mother declared mentally incompetent, while her 24-year-old daughter, Fiona, a sweet, loving flake, and her full-time caretaker, Magdalena, act out of less selfish motives. Mystery fans should be prepared for a subtle literary novel in which the unfolding of Jennifer's condition and of her past matters far more than the whodunit.
Dr. Jennifer White, 64, is a widowed retired orthopedic surgeon with rapidly advancing dementia. As she narrates her story, she is alternately eloquent and profoundly disconnected from reality. She lives at home with her caregiver; her son and daughter are doing their best to cope with her mood swings, confusion, and wanderings, but they have their own challenges. When Jennifer's best friend and neighbor is found murdered with four of her fingers surgically removed, she is understandably the prime suspect. She has no memory of committing the crime. Her children do their best to insulate her from incarceration as her grip on reality continues to slip. Her fractured and sometimes brilliant narrative of police questioning reveals the intimate story of two strong women whose friendship was both compassionate and highly adversarial. Verdict: This extraordinarily crafted debut novel guides the reader through family drama that is becoming all too familiar. That the author is able to do it so convincingly through the eyes and voice of the central character is an amazing achievement. Heartbreaking and stunning, this is both compelling and painful to read. —Susan Clifford Braun, Bainbridge Island, WA
LaPlante's literary novel explores uncharted territory, imagining herself into a mind, one slipping, fading, spinning away from her protagonist, a woman who may have murdered her best friend.... A haunting story masterfully told.
1. What is the time span of the novel? Were you clear about the flashbacks in Jennifer’s memory? Even in her surreal perceptions, is she still working out the past in the stories of James, Mark, Fiona, Amanda, and Peter? What about Dr. Tsu? Is the past really the past in Turn of Mind?
2. Would the story have worked as well if it had been told chronologically? Why, or why not? Consider the overlays of memory of all the characters. Do they provide double or triple exposures? The book is a memoir, a case history, and a mystery. “Something just wasn’t right about this from the beginning, she says, nothing fit.” (p. 278). How does the mystery reflect Jennifer’s condition? Does the ground keep shifting, for the reader, the detective, and, of course, Jennifer? Which characters keep searching for the missing piece of mosaic, lost somewhere in Jennifer? Are there times when we know more than Inspector Luton does? More than Jennifer? Or are we all, characters and readers, held with hints and suspicions until the end?
3. “This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthesized patient” (p. 8). Jennifer in her notebook describes her life in a fog. The term “coming of age” has a new meaning in Turn of Mind. As people grow up, we expect a loss of innocence. How is the process reversed in Alzheimer’s dementia? When Jennifer is trying to identify faces, she feels less capable than a six-month-old child, trying to “separate the known from the unknown” (p. 145). We think of Shakespeare’s "Ages of Man" when Jennifer compares the unhinged despair of fellow patients to the inconsolable, howling infant Fiona with colic.
4. After his riding catastrophe, Christopher Reeve lay frozen in his own body. He said to his wife, “I’m still here.” The essential Christopher was in there somewhere like the butterfly in the bell jar. Is that true of Jennifer? Which character do you think is able to see that essence the way Reeve’s wife could?
5. “What crime have I committed? How long have I been incarcerated?” Think of Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle or The Metamorphosis. (Gregor, as a giant beetle, hangs on to an internal reality, but his condition is surreal. His disconnect with family and friends is undeniable.) Kafka’s characters are doomed for unknowable causes. Does Jennifer probe at guilt as a way to make sense of her fate?
6. What draws Jennifer and Amanda together? What locks them in a friendship/competition like a pair of magnets that often get turned around, wrong end to? At one point, Jennifer says, “My best friend. My adversary. An enigma at the best of times. Now gone, leaving me utterly bereft” (p. 53). Asked by police about the relationship, Jennifer says, “Close, but combative. Amanda was in many ways a difficult woman” (p. 41). “You’d have to hold your own or be vanquished” (p. 45). (Does this remind us of Jennifer’s own mother?)
7. What surprised you about the marriage of Jennifer and James? How well do you think you know James? James, described as a creature of darkness, is known for “keeping his own counsel on things of import” (p. 47). What were these things? Why are they important in unraveling the mysteries of the book?
8. “Magdalena would like a clean slate, while I am mourning the involuntary wiping of mine” (p. 81). What is Magdalena trying to erase in her past? Is her name suggestive of her role? “I swear, sometimes I feel like I’m the one going nuts in this house” (p. 55). Is that surprising for one who is expected to be both advocate and jailer for Jennifer?
9. How does Jennifer refuse to be discounted? Even paranoiac, she has power. (Or is it paranoia when indeed everyone around her is set to restrain her or to humor her—patronize her, as she says.)
10. What is it about Jennifer that makes her so compelling, appealing, even? She behaves badly, outrageously, but there is a larger-than-life element in her that we admire. Give examples. Her professional competency is widely praised, but when we meet her, judgment and self-control have been suspended. Terrible odds are against her, but her wit and pluck survive. There is vitality in her whether she rails against her cursed predicament or shrewdly cuts through the cant of caretakers or officials. As a character, is Jennifer someone you just want to spend time with—at a safe distance?
11. Even if you have not experienced Alzheimer’s at close hand, what is there in LaPlante’s book that speaks to us all? What is the universality of Jennifer White’s dilemma? How is it a metaphor for the human condition?
12. Did you enjoy the resonance of other works in LaPlante’s book? What authors were you reminded of? Since the perspective is Jennifer’s for the most part, what do the echoes tell us about her turn of mind, her intellectual modus operandi?
13. Sometimes people’s treatment of Jennifer seems to be a touchstone of their own characters. How did various hospital staff treat her? The taxi driver? People in the Italian bar? The homeless? A woman I once knew patted her Alzheimer’s husband as he was dying and said, “This is not the man I married, but I’ve learned to love this one, too.” Do Mark and Fiona show signs of this reconciliation with their mother’s condition?
14. Reconciliations of all kinds seem to evaporate in Turn of Mind. It is not only Jennifer who is mercurial in the family. Talk about Mark and Jennifer, their family past and their adult lives. In the book there is a longing for order and restored harmony, but is this likely in the mayhem of an Alzheimer family? It is a world that tilts unpredictably, an image that recurs repeatedly.
15. "Do no harm." What are the ironies of the surgical amputation of Amanda’s fingers? How can one both mutilate and do good?
16. What is the Russian icon? How does it, as a symbol, work on multiple levels? Describe it. What is its history to Jennifer and James, Amanda, Mark, and Fiona?
17. Peter, in a prescient moment, says, “It’s those damned cicadas.... They make one think about Old Testament–style wrath-of-God type things” (p. 46). What are the dreadful revelations that grow more apocalyptic as they have to repeated, again and again, to Jennifer?
18. Are there ways in which Jennifer is privileged in her dementia? Think of her visions, her visitations. Once, as she looks into a mirror, she says, “I don’t recognize the face. Gaunt, with too-prominent cheekbones and eyes a little too large, too otherworldly. The pupils dilated. As if used to seeing strange visions. And then, a secret satisfied smile. As if welcoming them” (p. 200). Her fantasy life is a rich one, culminating in a scene like the book of Revelation when she re-enters the hallucinatory world of Amanda’s house, finding comfort in the crowds of old friends and family. “Perhaps this is my revelation? Perhaps this is heaven? To wander among a multitude and have a name for each” (p. 95).
19. Detective Luton is a linchpin for the story. How is she drawn to Jennifer, not only professionally but also personally? She says that her heart had been broken long ago, and it is being broken again with Jennifer. She sees in Jennifer a woman of quality and tries to reason with her. But Jennifer says, “The words make no sense. She is your sister, your long-lost sister. A shape-shifter. Anything is possible.... Who does she remind you of? Someone you can depend on” (pp. 277-278). How does the detective bring both hunches and skill to the case?
20. Fiona recalls “Amanda at her worst, her supercilious morality on full display” (p. 303). What is the confrontation here between “the iconoclast and the devoted godmother” as Fiona has earlier described her?
21. “Too many good-byes lie ahead.... How many times will I have to say good-bye to you, only to have you reappear like some newly risen Christ. Yes, better to burn the bridge and prevent it from being crossed and recrossed until my heart gives out from sheer exhaustion” (p. 114). Do we learn something new about Amanda here? Does the statement relate to her final acts? How directive is she to the end?
22. “Some things shouldn’t be scrutinized too closely. Some mysteries are only rendered, not solved” (p. 198). This is Jennifer to Mark about his father, but does it have relevance to the end of Turn of Mind? Are all the mysteries, in fact, explained at the end? Are there things that still puzzle you?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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