Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante is a haunting and tragic tale of murder and one women’s mental descension due to Alzheimers. Most of the story is written in the first person and we are allowed to witness, if not participate, in the often chaotic thoughts and actions of Jennifer White MD. Jennifer is in her early 60s, a retired orthopedic surgeon (specialty is hand surgery), widow, mother of two children, and a collector of religious art. Her son, Mark McLennan, is an attorney as was his father James. Her daughter, Fiona, is an economist and exhibits signs of manic episodes. Her son has been given medical power of attorney over her care and her daughter is given financial power of attorney. Other characters that are woven into the story include Magdelena, Jennifer’s full-time, live-in caregiver, and Amanda O’Toole a former teacher, Fiona’s godmother, reputedly Jennifer’s best friend, and the murder victim.
Jennifer’s story is divided into four sections and in each we see her decline to point that she suffers a “death of the mind.” Section one is immediately after the murder and Jennifer has more moments of lucidity but also has moments of aggression and confusion interspersed with memories of the past. One moment she realizes that her husband James is deceased and the next she is waiting for him to arrive home from work. One moment she is thinking about why Amanda hasn’t come over for coffee or to talk and the next she is reminded of her death and grieves. It is often just as difficult on the reader to see her grieve for Amanda repeatedly as she is reminded that her friend is gone. It seems cruel the way the police constantly remind of her this although we recognize that it must be done as a part of their investigation.
Section/chapter one brings the reader into the struggle with the chaotic thoughts, foggy moments, and episodes of clarity along with Jennifer. At times it is difficult to discern what are memories and what is reality as we read along, much as Jennifer has difficulty detecting what is real and what is not. She is at any given moment an eighteen year old, then fifty and perhaps thirty-five, sometimes in the span of minutes. Throughout this chaos, we watch as police investigate the murder of Amanda and the post-mortem mutilation of her body — the surgical removal of all of the fingers on one hand. For obvious reasons, the police suspect Jennifer and are initially reluctant to accept that she is suffering from dementia. They presume this is just a little too suspect and awfully convenient. During this period, Jennifer is still living at home with the assistance of Magdelena. However, her children become increasingly aware that this may no longer be a possibility as she has episodes of seemingly bizarre behavior, such as when she decides to taste the fruit in the grocery store and then removes her clothing. It isn’t possible for one person to watch her constantly during the day so we suffer as the children make arrangements for Jennifer to be placed in an assisted-living facility. The house is sold and Jennifer is moved.
In section/chapter two we witness Jennifer take more steps away from reality. She is in an assisted-living facility but doesn’t know why. She constantly thinks of ways to escape and has more difficulty recognizing faces. She tries to retain a sense of dignity in her insistence that her “care-givers” call her Dr. White as opposed to Jennifer. We also witness, through recollected memories and current episodes, her ongoing struggles with her children. She struggles with dealing with Marks financial insolvency issues, which seems to recall her husband’s embezzlement issues. Jennifer also struggles with dealing with Fiona’s behavior as she recalls Amanda’s interference in her oblique references that inform James that Fiona is not his child at Jennifer’s 50th birthday party. The more that is revealed about Amanda, the less we like her. She comes across as manipulative and vindictive if not downright envious of what Jennifer has with her children and the relationship she has with her husband James.
Each chapter/section becomes shorter and shorter as Jennifer’s grasp on reality becomes smaller and smaller. More is revealed about Amanda’s murder and the events surrounding the murder. We witness reconciliations and a sense of acceptance. We begin to grieve, not with Jennifer but with her children as they suffer through their mother’s decline. Ms. LaPlante does a superb job of grabbing our attention and shaking us up as we participate in the ups and downs in Jennifer’s life. This is an excellent fictional depiction of the trauma of Alzheimers/dementia from the sufferer’s perspective as well as the family. I highly recommend adding this book to your to-be-read list upon its release in July. A definite must-read!
Thank you again to the publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press and netGalley for the opportunity to review this book.