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Yesterday’s Gone

Left Neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books; $25.00; 336 pages)

“I think some small part of me knew that I was living an unsustainable life.   Every now and then it would whisper, Sarah, please slow down.   You don’t need all of this.   You can’t continue like this.”

Once upon a time, a 37-year-old woman named Sarah Nickerson was a successful and driven executive working in New York City.   Not a moment was ever wasted, even while driving her automobile.   Work, work, work was going to result in Sarah’s having a perfect life…

“Ever since business school, I’ve had my head down, barreling a thousand miles an hour, wearing the flesh of each day down to the bone, pointed down one road toward a single goal.   A successful life.”

Except that one day Sarah was rushing down a freeway when she turned her attention away from the road for a couple of seconds too long.   Her car went over a guard rail, turned over and over, and she barely escaped with her life.   Just like that, she had brain damage, resulting in a condition that would not permit her to see things with her left eye.   This accident also left her with basic paralysis on the left side of her body.   In theory, her left eye still worked perfectly fine but her brain had lost the ability to process its signals and, therefore, the left side of her life disappeared.   This condition is known by many names but is often referred to – ironically – as “left neglected.”

Lisa Genova, a former neuroscientist and nurse, applies her medical knowledge just as tactfully and effectively as she did in her earlier self-published New York Times Bestseller, Still Alice (about an Alzheimer’s patient).   Genova writes with such precise focus and detail that the reader believes he or she has become Sarah Nickerson, and battles her physical and mental conditions right along with her.   Sarah is nothing if not a fighter, a very stubborn one.   She plans to beat this thing, and quickly:

“Thank God I’m a competitive, Type A perfectionist.   I’m going to be the best traumatic brain injury patient Baldwin has ever seen…  they won’t be seeing me for long because I…  plan to recover faster than anyone would predict.   I wonder what the record is?”

Like the journalist Nan Robertson in the recovery memoir Getting Better, Sarah decides she’s going to scam the medical establishment if it kills her, and it almost does.   She won’t give in and she certainly won’t back down.   However, she soon becomes exhausted trying to get a broken-down mind and body to work again and even begins to lose track of the days of the week:  “It’s the beginning of March, and I’ve been out of work for four months now.”

Eventually she views herself as fully recovering and re-entering the workforce for, after all, she’s Sarah Nickerson… But what if she can’t beat this thing?

“I have no interest in accepting or accommodating.   I have a brain injury that has not healed and no promise that it ever will.   I used to have a full and successful life.   Now what do I have?”

Well, Sarah has a son with his own medical issues who seems to need her, and a husband who would love to support her, but also loves the idea of her someday bringing in a paycheck again.   Just when they need the “old Sarah” back, she begins to realize the value of taking a time-out from the whirl of Manhattan life and living:  “I didn’t dream of having a brain injury in order to have the chance to sit and think…  That’s kind of a hard price to pay for a little R&R…”   But since she’s paid the price, she just might decide to take advantage of it.

The joyful part of this read is seeing how Sarah finds a new way of living that makes her whole, at least in terms of her spirit and soul.   She gets to see that life can be experienced without Gantt charts and due dates; without people needing her every second of the night and day.   It may have taken a brain injury, but our protagonist Sarah becomes a person who learns to live and love life without hesitation.

Who would have thought it?   Sarah Nickerson, a woman bathed in Gratitude.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Remember how you couldn’t put down Still Alice?   Well, clear your schedule – because you’re going to feel the same way.”   Jodi Picoult

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Obla Di Obla Da

This isn’t the movies.   Everything doesn’t turn out all tied up in a neat bow the way you want.

Luck never has anything to do with love, she said…  Luck has everything to do with everything, he told her.   Especially love.

From Carolyn Leavitt’s Pictures of You

Somewhere between heartwarming and heart wrenching lies Carolyn Leavitt’s Pictures of You.

In this book, Charlie loses his wife, April, in a car accident on a foggy night as she is leaving him for another man.   Unbeknownst to April until well into her journey, Sam, their only son, a fragile asthmatic, has snuck into the car and nearly dies in the accident as well.   The driver of the other vehicle, Isabelle, who is fleeing her unfaithful spouse, is free from fault but haunted by the tragedy, nonetheless.   The survivors and innocent bystanders’ attempts to make sense of these events and move on with their lives is the crux of the story.

Nothing completely works out for any of the characters, which is perhaps the point of the novel.   Isabelle, a trusting, warm, caring, and somewhat naive person, seems to land on her feet to a certain degree, though whether or not this will be true for Sam is left open to question.   What likely will be troubling to some readers is that Charlie, who, though imperfect, is mostly admirable and noble, meanders through the later stages of his life with little or no resolution to anything.

Leavitt’s treatment of Charlie’s plight toward the end of the book essentially drives home all of the major themes of restlessness and longing that pervade throughout it.   While the characters frustrate, the reader is drawn to them and prone to root for them.

Leavitt’s concise prose is provocative, dense with meaning, and packs a greater punch than those whose excessive detail loses itself in translation.   However, there are a few things that are problematic.   As a child, Sam is given independence to roam and make decisions more common to someone in their early teens, and events occasionally jump from one to the next without adequate explanation.   All of a sudden another character appears, or two characters meet, or a major time shift occurs, and the reader – without enough to go on – must suspend belief or grapple with the inconclusive “what-for’s” and “why’s” of the situation.   Perhaps most troubling is Leavitt’s over-reliance on constructing the characters’ major thoughts or points she wants the reader to ponder in the form of questions.   The writing itself is mostly powerful, which could lead one to deem this technique unnecessary, yet it is instead common.

Leavitt trickles the story out initially and creates strong scenes, engaging passages, and well-constructed dialogue, moving the reader to a satisfying inconclusive conclusion.   She does an admirable job of exploring the complexity of human relationships, and none of the minor issues noted above interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of this rich tale.

Recommended.

This “second look” preview-review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   (A review copy was provided by the publisher.)   Pictures of You: A Novel will be released by Algonquin Books on January 25, 2011.

“Magically written, heartbreakingly honest…”   Jodi Picoult

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