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Book Reviews   |    
All That Matters: A Novel
Reviewed by Lorrie Garces, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.56.12.1632
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by Jan Goldstein; New York, Hyperion, 2004, 208 pages, $17.95

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Jan Goldstein, an ordained rabbi who has contributed to the world of self-help literature, takes on the "feel-good" novel with his latest project, All That Matters: A Novel. It is interesting that he has inserted that subtitle, because this book frequently feels more like a parable intended to reinforce messages from his earlier writings than a novel.

We first encounter the main character, Jennifer, on Venice Beach after an attempted overdose. We quickly learn that she has been experiencing depression for several years after her mother died as a result of being hit by a drunk driver and the subsequent immersion of her father into his movie-producing career and new marriage. She has also gone through a painful breakup. However, the pivotal character is Jennifer's Jewish grandmother, Gabby, from whom Jennifer has been estranged for several years. Gabby, in poor physical health with end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, flies from her home in New York to Los Angeles when she hears about Jennifer's overdose in order to try to provide some support.

This book is, in a sense, all about Gabby's ability to provide lay therapy for Jennifer by teaching her about the importance of love and family. Gabby's eccentric and likeable character is probably the most successful thing about the book. Whether you are able to engage with this message, however, will depend on whether you can tolerate the fact that Goldstein has turned everything else in Jennifer's life into a caricatured cliché. The "big-shot" psychologist her grandmother arranges for her to see in New York is more worried about his book signings than Jennifer's mental health. The boyfriend who recently broke up with her is described as "the white knight of her childhood fairy tales, the prince she long dreamed would rescue her from a life she had no wish to live." Her father, an easily agitated Hollywood workaholic, is now married to "Ms. Beverly Hills Aerobics" and is observed at one point "muttering and shifting in his seat like a kid off of Ritalin."

Gabby's retelling of her experience as a Holocaust survivor is a crucial part of the story that appears to have the greatest impact on Jennifer's recovery. In fact, when we are able to see where Gabby's character has come from and understand her core strength and survival instinct, we feel the undercurrent and excitement of character development for the first time. Unfortunately, Jennifer's development is so superficial that when we reach the final emotional climax of the story, the transformation seems over the top and too facile.

This book is an extremely fast read, with brief, rapidly paced chapters. A remarkable amount of territory is covered given the book's length, including a new love interest for Jennifer, who is mentioned only twice but talks about their future together. As a result, almost everything stays superficial because of the structural constraints—which seems to be a disservice both to the reader and to Gabby's character. I suspect there is a specific audience who will be willing to ignore the deficits in plot and character for a "feel-good" story. However, for many in the mental health field, Gabby's message may resonate individually, whereas the depiction of clinical depression, the psychosocial environment, and character structure will fall significantly short of expectations.

Dr. Garces is a community psychiatry fellow at the University of Florida in Gainesville.




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