Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Other Side of You, part one

I picked up Salley Vickers's The Other Side of You (2006) because Michael Dirda said that fans of Marilynne Robinson, James Salter, and Penelope Fitzgerald would like it. He wrote,
All these authors reflect, with grace and gravity, on life's moments of sorrowful epiphany, so achingly summarized by the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Heywood:

O God! O God! That it were possible

To undo things done; to call back yesterday. . . .

That was enough for me. But for the second straight time, the usually reliable Dirda has steered me wrong.

In The Other Side of You, a psychiatrist relates the story of a woman named Elizabeth Cruikshank, whom he counseled after a suicide attempt. He tells of their increasingly intimate sessions, of his own fear and uncertainty, and of the ways that the sessions become as much about his own emotional growth as about her coming to terms with the business of living. Slowly she reveals that her suicide attempt was driven by the loss of a great love. Not believing she could be truly loved, she pulled away, and she blamed that faithlessness, in part, for her loss. As Vickers puts it,
It is a hallmark of the damaged that when it comes to their own desire instinctively, ruinously, they tend to court the opposite.

The book is peppered with that sort of aphoristic lines about human nature, some of them almost as sharp as those found in George Eliot. For example, the psychologist, confronted with a pathologically lonely student, thinks,
I'm not sure why there is something shaming about having no one to confide in, but in my view a good deal of aberrant behaviour stems from unbearable isolation and the socially unacceptable sense of being quite alone
Of Eliabeth's attempts at assuaging the loss of her love, Vickers notes,
She was to learn why the commonly advised remedy of "pulling oneself together" is one which is recommended only by those who have been spared the doomed attempts to apply it.
And of his patients, the doctor states,
The people we were treating were not so much looking for a remedy for anxiety or depression, they were looking for a reason to be alive.

From all this, it's clear that Vickers has an interesting mind and is serious in her thinking about emotion, desire, and pain. The problem comes when she has Elizabeth begin describing her lover, Thomas, a free-spirited art historian.

More tomorrow.

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