by Carolyn See; New York, Random House, 2006, 256 pages, $24.95
Dr. Pinkerson is affiliated with Quincy Mental Health Center, Quincy, Massachusetts.
This is the most recent of both fiction and nonfiction books by acclaimed writer Carolyn See. See does not miss a beat in keeping the emotional experience of her characters present as the motivating force behind their choices, and she does this in an unsentimental way, using visual images to evoke effect.
The novel opens with Edith, a new widow, filling bags with garbage—Depends, Chux, lotions, catheters, swabs, a visual survey of the paraphernalia of the end of life. Edith recalls her husband's struggle against infirmity just briefly in the litany of stuff, while the phone rings in the background. When the phone is finally answered, it is Phil, her son. He tells her to turn on the television. It is September 11, 2001, and Edith's response is, "Excuse me, God, but you're going to have to do better than that if you want to impress me!" This sets the stage and tone, maintained for the rest of the book, which is about the pain and anxiety of personal loss, the threat of loneliness, and love, all set against the shared public anxiety of the threat of terrorism.
The story is filled with caricatures, or archetypes: the doctors are self-important and don't communicate, and the women are all identified with their relationships. But this starting point lets the reader in on where the various narrators are coming from, as they struggle to be who they think they should be. The setting is Los Angeles, 2007, and the characters' lives intersect at a hospital. Although the main character is a doctor and people are dying in the hospital, the truest images are in the waiting room, the grounds, and the wider community. The subplots are artfully woven together, so that the book flows easily. The suspense of pending terrorism remains present without drowning out the personal narratives.
The central character, Phil, is a dermatologist who has found a way to practice medicine that avoids any significant contact with illness and is trained to see only the surface of things. He is married to a woman with whom he cannot communicate—nor does he wish to. He visits his mistress for reasons he cannot fathom, and he does not question himself. He is recruited to be part of a top-secret team preparing for a bioterrorism crisis, and the official command not to communicate mirrors his status quo. But Phil's life is in crisis, his marriage is tenuous, his son is failing out of elementary school, and children are dying at the hospital.
See weaves Phil's story in with the stories of multiple families, generations, and lives in crisis—relationships get off to false starts or ends, fathers are absent or facing death, and terrorism looms or is happening. Everything is at a crisis and seems about to end, and in the meantime everything continues. Babies are born, people age, some escape death, and others die.
About midway through the book, a man who cares to protest the loss of personal liberty is told by an inebriated security officer that "Patriotism trumps the personal." This novel is a reminder that the personal is what always remains. The contemporary threats of the post-September 11 world make the message resonate true.
Psychiatric Services readers may be particularly drawn to questions this novel raises about behavior and illness, and the roots of anxiety and anger in the person, the family, and a society that uses fear to maintain power. There Will Never Be Another You also addresses the ability to change and to stop being complicit in one's own, and everyone else's, anguish.