Someone needs to start a band, today, and name it “The Knockout Mice.” People, please get on this right away and make it happen. Thanks.
Special thanks to my wife for pointing this glaring omission to reality, via Wikipedia.
You can, of course, learn countless lessons from a book. The better the book, the more numerous; the worse, the more by lack. Some great lessons lurk in the worst books. But I want to write about good books. I think that at the very least it should be possible to find three lessons in a well written book. With that in mind I look back on a book I just finished: “The Other Side of You,” by Sally Vickers.
One of the most obvious successes is Ms. Vickers’ incorporation of the narrator’s profession into the story. This goes hand in hand with expertise and that goes hand in hand with research. Ms. VIckers is a former psychologist and her analyst narrator reflects a deep understanding of the nature of the work, the nature of human hurt and healing, and the nature of the business of healing (hospital politics and bureaucracy plays a nice back-drop to the novel’s main story). Thank God she doesn’t rely on easy pigeonholing or labeling (no one is labeled a Freudian or Behaviorist; the realities of practicing psychology and understanding the field are far more complicated and the lines too blurred for that to have rung quite true) and instead just presents a character that we can see has a full understanding of the profession and the various approaches. Her own background grounds this narrator beautifully; she smartly used what she knew inside out to flesh him out in a few strokes. Equally impressive is the research she used to create another character who is an art historian. Ms. Vickers’ background does not include art history, but she managed enough research to write intelligently, so that the character speaks intelligently, about Caravaggio. His profession grants him a depth, and it’s based fully in research; Ms. Vickers’ patience to not create a character who knows something of which she knows nothing rewards both the character and us (I now know a good deal about Caravaggio and have a nice appreciation for his work).
Another success Ms. Vickers achieves is utilizing narrative in multiple timelines. This can be tricky, especially when it creates multiple protagonists (see “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson in which he has alternating chapters: contemporary setting vs. WWII). Ms. Vickers avoids simple alternation of chapters and instead blends the present with the past in a way very natural to how we think, and very natural for a story involving therapeutic analysis: her story within story narrative is the long, seven hour analysis session with a suicidal patient. I found it remarkably compelling because it becomes obvious, when descriptions are not placed in direct quotes and attributed to the patient, that what we are reading are the narrator’s imaginings of how things happened. He is internalizing her story and making it his own. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the details he recalls are “true” factually; they are for him, and the reality they focus on brings his own life to light. That we each carry our histories with us and will have reminiscences which spring into mind unbidden is nicely done here and is worth emulating.
Finally, Ms. Vickers brilliantly uses comparison to illustrate the narrator’s insights into his own character. The tale being told by his patient, the vividness of the art historian the patient describes, forces the narrator to measure himself in comparison. He does the same in opposition to a colleague, other patients, his wife, friends, etc. I noted more and more often how well she used phrases such as “Unlike him, I couldn’t help but…” or “He was the sort to…, but I was the type to…” Characters didn’t so much have confrontations as simply display contrasts for one another. There didn’t need to be outer conflict, as the narrator’s envy and fears were palpable in his constant measure of himself. It made for a moving and dramatic tale where what “happens” is two people sat in a room and talked for seven hours.
As I said above, there are countless lessons to be learned in a good book. These are just three that stuck out for me.