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The main character of this novel, Zee Finch, like author Brunonia Barry, lives in Salem, MA. Zee is a psychotherapist, but the only patient we hear about is Lilly, who is unhappy in her marriage, has affairs, and has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Even if there is only one patient in the book, there is plenty of psychologically-related material. Zee's mother was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she killed herself. Zee's father Finch is gay, and he has Parkinson's disease mixed with dementia. Zee's friend and supervising psychiatrist, Mattei, is a lesbian. Zee is planning to marry her fiancé Michael, but she is also sabotaging their wedding plans. So this is a sprawling 400 page novel with many themes. The central drama of the book stems from Lilly's suicide and the mystery about why she did it, with the parallel of why exactly Zee's mother killed herself when Zee was 13. Then there's what we might call the underlying metaphysics of the novel: the notion of mapping one's position in the world, which comes though the skills of sailors navigating on the sea, a motif all through the book.
So there's lots going on in this story, and it is a good mix of themes and ideas. Unfortunately, the book didn't click for me: I found none of the characters particularly interesting, and the literary references to writers such as Yates, Melville, and Hawthorne didn't add anything. Zee should be a compelling central figure: a woman with wild past, uncertainty about her current relationships with her fiancé, a determination to find out what happened in her dead patient's life, and a keen intelligence. The writing and the reading of the unabridged audiobook by Alyssa Bresnahan are not gripping; it has a detached sense of curiosity, and despite the themes of love and death facing many of the characters, there's not much passion. Other readers warm much more to Barry's writing, but I don't share their reaction. It is disappointing that in such a long and detailed novel, there's so little about the actual therapeutic process between Zee and Lilly, or about the relationship between Zee and her mother. Strangely, the novel lacks emotional complexity, viewing its characters from the outside, and giving us little insight into their inner lives. Listening to the audiobook became a chore because the chapters are crammed full of irrelevant details and back story, but we come to know the characters only slightly better. Further, there's little dramatic tension, and the surprises in the plot don't have much consequence. Maybe the most valuable aspect of the book is the development of Finch's disease as he becomes more forgetful and confused, to the point at the end where he is unable to recognize those close to him. Despite his inability to know who people are, he still responds with love. If any part of the book manages to be moving, it is this, and maybe the fact that it is based on Barry's own experience with her father explains its power. The effect of this part of the plot is unfortunately diluted by the complications of Zee's love life, and her reflections on the life of her dead patient, which ultimately lack the same conviction. While the novel is admirable for its ambition and its seriousness, I won't be recommending it to others.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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