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Book Reviews   |    
The Prodigal

by Michael Hurley; Charleston, South Carolina, Ragbagger Press, 2013, 346 pages

Reviewed by Leslie Hartley Gise, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2014; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.650310
View Author and Article Information

Dr. Gise is clinical professor with the Department of Psychiatry, John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawaii, Honolulu.

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This is a fun vacation novel set against the mystery of the sometimes turbulent sea and the parable of the prodigal son. Many plot lines allude to the parable, including the good character and the bad, going away and coming back, and loss and redemption, which turns out to be like recovery. The story starts with a short allegorical tale from the past and takes the reader on a trip from an urban, professional, competitive life to a nautical outpost on the Outer Banks and the special bonds of community and tolerance forged in rural, island life.

The star of the show is a very successful lawyer troubled by a recent divorce and overconfidence. He winds up on the remote, island refuge of Ocracoke Island with a lot of other flawed characters. This small island is a magical place of healing for people whose lives had completely fallen apart and who had no place else to go.

The plot has something in it for everyone: Vatican politics, faith and belief, adventure, bravery, alcohol, anger, action, and violence. The story reflects many elements of contemporary culture, such as the power of big institutions and money, the challenge of man against nature, and a nod to the past and old-school approaches like craftsmanship and do-it-yourself solutions. Hurley’s writing is beautiful and full of colorful, evocative metaphors.

Several themes are of interest to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, such as teamwork, a medical-legal mystery, and the similarities of priests and therapists in promoting recovery.

Although the book is full of flawed characters, it does not feel like a busman’s holiday. The first half of the book sets the stage for dramatic twists and turns of the plot that seem to mimic a turbulent sea. The novel is so engaging that each short chapter entices the reader to read one more.

Of particular value are the characters, who are all studies in contradiction, “lost souls” in an “island purgatory” who were “captives to the addictions that enslaved them” and “washed up self-loathing bastards.” The author is male, and his male characters are better developed and more convincing than his female characters, who are somewhat stereotyped. Extraordinary circumstances confront the reader to wonder how he or she would react in the same situation. Despite the somewhat contrived, overly dramatic, and not entirely believable plot in the second half of the book, the good outweighs the bad. The story is dense and intriguing, full of passion, and prompts the reader to think about what he or she really cares about in life.

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