Review: An Unexplained Death

If you follow me on Instagram, you already know how I feel about Mikita Brottman’s latest work of nonfiction, An Unexplained Death. In a few words: transcendent. Introspective. Provocative.

I was immediately drawn to the story’s premise: Rey Rivera, a charismatic and kind young man, goes missing one spring day. A week later, his body is discovered at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, and the investigators spend very little time determining it is likely a suicide . . . but they dub the causes “undetermined.” Belvedere resident (the hotel is now an apartment building) Mikita Brottman is captivated by this mystery. Was it really a suicide? Why did the investigators do such a terrific job of traipsing all over the crime scene? Why wasn’t she questioned, though the body fell right past her window? What would lead such a handsome and seemingly-successful man to take his own life?

What ensues is Brottman’s obsessive investigation of Rivera’s death and, mingled in among the details of the hunt, her macabre fascination with the hotel’s history of remarkable suicides. An Unexplained Death is almost, to be honest, three different novels in one: it’s a history of the Belvedere Hotel; it’s a true crime work that explores Rey Rivera’s death; and it’s an exploratory memoir that maps out Brottman’s fixation with life, death, and worthiness.

Brottman’s strengths lie in her analyses of very human traits — our fixation on the misfortune of others, our proclivities for stories with “juicy” details and gruesome outcomes, our predilection for judgement even in the cases of victims. I was stricken many times by the honest — and far-reaching — insights Brottman presents to readers. An example:

“Our unease and mistrust around the stories of missing people is a defense mechanism that lets us keep the horror at bay; we can reassure ourselves that many missing people aren’t ‘really’ missing, and as for kidnap victims, they must have been weak and gullible enough to fall in love with their captors, something a stable, rational person would surely never do.” (p. 6)

I mean, seriously. Here’s the nail, and here’s Brottman hitting it on the head.

“When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.” (p. 11)

And it doesn’t end at page 11, the noteworthy gemmary of Brottman Wisdom:

“When an event has far-reaching consequences, we assume its causes must be equally momentous, just as when we want to roll a higher number, we shake the dice harder, and for a longer time.” (p. 79)

An Unexplained Death is more than a well-researched work of nonfiction. In a highly-readable narrative form, Brottman manages to take readers on a journey of discovery — of Rey Rivera’s life and death, of the author’s own sense of self, of readers’ tendencies toward the macabre and morbidity. The work is obsessive, it’s introspective, and it’s absolutely captivating. Brottman’s insightful observations on human nature throughout this book are just startlingly good.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A must-read for fans of true crime or nonfiction in general.

WWW Wednesday – 11/28

WWW Wednesdays

In an effort to bring a little more regularity to this blogger’s recently-hectic life, I’m

jumping on board the WWW Wednesday train. WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over

at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

November has been a good reading month for me so far — I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of variety in the genres I’ve picked up. First things first, though!

Here’s what I’m currently reading . . .

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The Ensemble by Aja Gabel. This is my book club’s selection for November and we’re due to discuss it in just a few days — eep! — so naturally, I just started it yesterday. I’ve been listening to the classical pieces listed at the beginning of each “part” of the book which adds to the reading experience, in my opinion. This novel was extremely hyped on Instagram in the spring when it was published, so I went into it with a little apprehension; but so far, I’m quite invested in the characters and the way their storylines so badly want to diverge. The Ensemble follows four musicians who belong to a string quartet and desperately seek fame and success — but at what cost? How much will they sacrifice to achieve their dreams?

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. This is my first audiobook (ever!) and I’ve started listening to it as a means of motivating myself to get on the elliptical during Henry’s afternoon naps. The premise is simple: nine individuals, seeking change or a rest or some sort of personal growth arrive at Tranquillim House for a ten-day retreat. The resort has a reputation for its inventive and intense methods, and the guests are eager to begin — if not a bit apprehensive. When the gong sounds and 5 days of silence (Noble Silence) begin, things begin to get . . . interesting. Thus far, I’m really enjoying the narrator, and I’ve been surprised by the number of times I’ve laughed out loud.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This is the third book in the Outlander series and part of a buddy read I’m doing with bookstagram buddies @shihtzus.and.book.reviews and @booksgloriousbooks. We’ve been crawling through this one, a bit (started it October 1), but I’m finding the pacing much better than the previous book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. While I’m not generally a fan of romance novels, Gabaldon’s Outlander series has me hooked, and I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

Here’s what I’ve recently finished . . .

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An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This nonfiction title was sent to me for review by Henry Holt Books. This work of true crime/investigative nonfiction is an unexpected gem: covering the disappearance of young, charismatic Rey Rivera, who was discovered dead and later proclaimed — unbelievably — to have committed suicide at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Sprinkled in among the exhaustive research regarding Rivera’s suspicious death, Brottman has included interesting asides about the history of the Belvedere Hotel and its many suicides over the decades. This work of nonfiction also includes more than a few spot-on observations about the human psyche, our fascination with morbidity, and tendencies toward blame within the pages.

Here’s what’s next . . .

I’ve already started compiling a list of wintry reads I hope to get to in December. Here’s a couple I’m especially looking forward to.

There’s also a strong possibility I’ll reread The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey because I loved that book so dang much last year. If you’re in the market for a magical, sweet, and emotional read — I can’t recommend it enough!

What’s on your December reading list? Give me some wintry ideas in the comments section, if you will; and as always, happy reading, friends!

7 Books to Read if You Love a Rural Vibe

I can remember thinking in high school, Why are so many books set in the city? I was born and raised in a rural area where cows outnumbered humans, and had such a difficult time fully relating to the idea of life on the crowded streets of the Big Apple or London; these were places I’d never been, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have pizza delivered to the door (our closest option: Pizza Hut, 27 miles away) or to spend thirty minutes traversing a few city blocks (you could get from one side of town to the other in 3 minutes, if you hit the stoplights just right).

Obviously, I didn’t give up on these titles; part of the joy in reading is, for this little reader on the prairie, “traveling” to other times or places that differ significantly from my own life. That being said, there’s just something about rural literature that I adore — the homey feel I get when I read about an old dirt road leading to nowhere under a canopy of trees, the not-so-anonymous vibes of small-town crime, the intimate knowing between neighbors who’ve team-raised half the kids in the community.

In honor of this love affair with rural America, I give to thee: A List of Renee’s Favorite Rural Reads.

  1. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. Published by Putnam Books, August 2018. If you’re in the market for something gritty, something utterly compelling, something sofrigginmindblowinglyEXCELLENT that you can’t put it down, look no further. I picked this one for my August BOTM selection and just got around to reading it in September and I still haven’t stopped thinking about this glorious work of fiction. (Or recommending it to, like, everyone.)
  2. Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series. Published by Minotaur Books, 1990 – present. I’m only three books in (Still Life, A Fatal Grace, and The Cruelest Month), but these cozy mysteries do not disappoint. Nestled in the teeny town of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, the book isn’t *technically* rural; however, the small-town vibes are terrifically reminiscent of the upbringing of anyone who’s been part of a community of a couple hundred. Everyone in Three Pines knows everyone else, all are quick to welcome — and assess — newcomers, and the small-town feel is utterly endearing.
  3. Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. Published in 1933. This satirical work of fiction examines a family of sharecroppers in Georgia during the Great Depression. The narrative is centralized on a family of poor white farmers — the Lesters — who are struggling to survive in an era that no longer needs all hands on deck to cultivate, plant, and harvest cotton. The Lesters are ignorant, depraved, and some of the most darkly-comical characters I’ve ever read. Often repulsive and darkly hysterical*, this tragic portrait of 1930s America  depicts rural life in an unfathomable time.
  4. Descent by Tim Johnston. Published by Algonquin, 2015. Nestled in among the Rocky Mountains, Descent takes readers to the dark places that exist in the shadows between family members. The Courtland family heads off on a family vacation prior to the eldest daughter’s departure to college. What should be relaxing and rehabilitating ends in despair when the daughter disappears without a trace on an early morning run. This novel isn’t purely set in the countryside — there are some forays into the city as family members search for their missing daughter and sister; but much of the novel takes place within the wooded mountains or rural areas outside the city, at times both blissfully lonesome and achingly void.
  5. The High Divide by Lin Enger. Published by Algonquin, 2014. This western novel features the Pope family, living on the prairie of Minnesota in 1886 and newly abandoned by Ulysses, father and husband. Leaving without a word of explanation and hardly a farewell, Ulysses leaves his two sons and wife reeling: where could he have possibly gone? It doesn’t take long for the boys to set off after him, truly a wild goose chase in an era unprivileged with cell phones and social media. This work of historical fiction offers spectacular views of the prairieland and Midwest of more than a century ago and I am here for it.
  6. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published by Little, Brown, 2012. If you read my review of this spectacularly charming work of fairy-tale-esque fiction last winter, you’ll already know I was utterly captivated by Ivey’s lonesome Alaskan couple, childless and increasingly individual as the months pass by. When the pair builds a snow child on a whim during the first snowfall of the season, things take a turn for the better and the couple soon discovers an orphaned girl, roaming about the woods. Is she a manifestation of their snow child? Is she the product of homesteaders, long dead and gone? And more importantly — is she theirs to love forever? Surrounded by nothing by the breathtaking and brutally remote Alaskan wilderness, The Snow Child is a perfect read for those seeking a rural setting . . . and better still, it’s ideal for these chilly and snowy winter days.
  7. Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. A simple, but evocative novel in which several ordinary characters — a father raising two sons alone, two solitary bachelors dwelling together, a pregnant teenager thrown out by her mother, and a compassionate schoolteacher — are strung together in an unembellished by heartwarming manner. Set in the plains east of Denver, the novel is a portrait of the simplicity and community that comes with life in rural America.

And here’s a peek at a few titles I haven’t read yet, but am highly anticipating due to their rural vibes!

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Published by Tin House, 2018. An unconventionally wrought story about a young boy growing up near a river in the Midwest, sans parents. The book is told in glossary-style, a list of informative vignettes about various subjects the boy encounters in his lifetime. The book promises to be a coming-of-age tale, and you all know how I feel about those. 🙂
  • The Worst Hard Time (nonfiction) by Timothy Egan. Published by Mariner Books, 2006. This work of nonfiction is mostly focused on the area I now occupy: the vast — and unforgiving — southwest region of Kansas. A portrait of the dust storms and utter calamity that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s, The Worst Hard Time is “the story of those who stayed and survived — those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave . . . “. I’m particularly interested in this title as my grandfather-in-law has often imparted memories of his own upbringing during the Dirty Thirties, an era which is unfathomable to most of us today.
  • Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. Published by Putnam, 2015. Now this one — this book is what I’m all about, friends. Have you ever watched Lawless,  the movie about a moonshine-making family in the hills of Appalachia during the Prohibition era? I have. Seven times. I’ll probably watch it again tonight, now that it’s on my mind. Anyway — Bull Mountain seems to fall in line a bit with the rowdy gang of vigilantes in Lawless. The novel features a family history of down-home mobsters running moonshine, pot, and meth across state lines, with virtually no legal consequences. This is all well and good until one of the sons — Clayton — decides to become a law-man and separate himself from his family of criminals . . . until the federal government steps in and Clayton is forced to reconsider where his loyalties truly lie. I have high hopes for this one, my friends. HIGH.

Got any other great rural reading suggestions for me? Drop ’em below in the comments! I’m always on the lookout for books that bring life to the places tucked away in forgotten valleys or between mountain towns or left untouched among the prairie grasses of the Midwest. After all, home is where the heart is; and once you’ve loved the country, your home will never change.

*I read Tobacco Road in college in a course titled “Literature of the South.” My classmates were deeply disturbed that I (& my darkly humorous professor) found the book “funny” at times. I’d like to clarify that this isn’t a “OMGLOL” book, but rather, a book that one has to laugh at here and there in order not to weep at the sheer depravity of the characters featured. And honestly, it is funny sometimes. It’s satire. 

Fall 2018 Releases to Add to Your List

I don’t know about you, but this month was F U L L. In fact, it feels like Christmas is coming tomorrow — that’s how frazzled school has me! There are so many great books releasing that I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on yet — A Spark of LightThe Witch ElmBridge of Clay — all by some tried-and-true authors that I go back to again and again. There are some other great reads you may not have heard about, though, that I’ve had the pleasure of reading + reviewing — check ’em out below!

  1. The Caregiver by Samuel Park. Simon & Schuster, September 2018. This work focuses on the complex and tumultuous relationship between young Mara Alencar and her mother, Ana, in a Rio neighborhood in the 1970s; and alternately, the relationship between Mara and the woman she cares for within her home in 1990s Bel Air, Kathryn. My full review can be read here.
  2. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. Tin House, October 2018. I’ve already sung a love song to this dark, atmospheric read here. This novel is a very literary work, chock-full of evocative imagery, symbolism, and the kinds of features that make English Lit majors’ hearts go pitter-pat. If you’re in the mood for something with a classic vibe and all kinds of eerie features, this is the read for you. (And if you’re in the mood for something action-packed, keep moving.)
  3. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Collins, October 2018. A dense, thought-provoking tome from a seasoned author, Unsheltered is a tale of two time periods: 1880s and present-day Vineland, NJ. Alternating between Willa, modern-day mother and freelance journalist struggling to hold together the pieces of her crumbling family (and home) and Thatcher, science teacher and sadly undervalued husband to a very unappreciative young wife in the 1880s. The two narratives are connected by the characters’ place of residence, both then and now a deteriorating and poorly cobbled-together structure that is symbolic of their own ragged lives. A bit overwrought in terms of philosophical political conversations, but the story and characters are compelling, nonetheless.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (graphic novel) by Harper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham. Harper Books, October 2018. This classic novel, recently chosen as America’s favorite novel per PBS’s Great American Read vote-off, was republished this month with a bit of a twist. The novel was reworked into a graphic novel, which means that teachers who are sharing the classic coming-of-age tale with students will have an accessible option for those kids who “hate reading.” Shudders — is there such a thing? 

A few others on my stack that I haven’t gotten to but am looking forward to reading soon:

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Tin House, September 2018. “…the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest.” Coming-of-age novel set in the heartland? Ummm, count me in.
  • An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. Henry Holt & Co., November 2018. A nonfiction work of…true crime?…that follows one woman’s obsessive investigation into a mysterious assumed-suicide at the former Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Upping the ante: she uncovers a string of believed-suicides in previous decades, all at the same hotel. I’m HERE FOR IT.

That’s all for now! Back to the school-and-mama-life grind it is. Happy Halloween, and as ever, happy reading, friends.

Review: The Caregiver

Having grown up in an unbroken home, with present and participative parents and enough food to eat and clothes that I didn’t have to buy (or beg for) secondhand, I’ve taken a lot for granted, I know. One major “thing”: my relationship with my parents, and in particular, with my mother. She’s always been a positive part of my life, overflowing with love and kindness and patience. But I know that not everyone is so fortunate, and possibly because of that, I’ve forever been fascinated by the relationships between mothers and daughters.

The Caregiver, by the late Samuel Park, is just that: a portrait of mother and daughter, displayed in pieces of the past. Mara Alencar is an immigrant living in Bel Air in the 1990s, serving as an in-home caregiver for a wealthy (and isolated) woman who is battling cancer. Their relationship is complicated — one stranger caring intimately for another, what wouldn’t be awkward about that, at first? — and made even more so by the fact that Mara’s patient, Kathryn, begins to make extravagant promises about her will and Mara’s imminent inheritance. These “current” snapshots of Mara’s life as an immigrant are full of gems about the unfamiliar nature of common life in America that native residents so take for granted. For example,

“Nothing made me feel more American than being in a supermarket. So much choice, so many different ways to fill yourself up. . . . Even if I didn’t buy anything, walking down the aisles gave me a sense of belonging. . . . Going to the supermarket was free; there was no admission price. Nobody questioned my right to be there. It was the most democratic institution in the city.” (p. 7)

Park writes with clarity on this strange world-inhabiting experience, about what must surely feel like being devoured whole. However, Mara’s life in modern-day California isn’t the bright, shiny bit of this novel. The real gem: the intermittent flashbacks to 1970s Rio de Janeiro, with eight-year-old Mara living in turbulent political times with her mother, Ana.

These flashbacks offer readers something almost tangible, thanks to some vivid and unrestrained writing from Park. Mara’s mother is a voice-over actress, dubbing American films into Portuguese for the general population; and in her mind, something of a starlet. She’s beautiful and almost frivolous, flitting from one idea to the next with only the hounding necessity of money to stabilize her focus. The two live alone, without husband or father, and survive from paycheck to paycheck: feasting and luxuriating in good fortune after payday, grumbling and skimping when jobs are few and far between. As the country nears its political breaking point, Ana’s desperation peaks and she takes a job as an actress — partly out of a desire to prove her worth (to whom, it’s unclear) and partly out of sheer necessity: their cash stores are running low.

When Ana becomes entangled in something far greater than she could have foreseen, their lives are launched onto a trajectory that has devastating consequences for the pairing.

Park writes with a stunning depth of feeling and wisdom in these flashbacks — Ana’s desperation to be something and Mara’s furious devotion to her mother had me captivated. The political unrest and turmoil of 1970s Brazil provides a provocative backdrop, and as events fall into place, the novel seems to scurry toward something dark and unavoidable.

When Mara is an adult, she seeks the truth about her mother’s life, desperate to reconcile her own image of her mother with that harsh mistress — Truth.

Unfortunately, these two narratives don’t . . . quite . . . connect. I was so immersed in Mara’s younger years, but less drawn to her relationship with Kathryn which ultimately left me dissatisfied and a bit underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong — there are parallels, here; they just don’t seem to ever flesh out completely. The novel feels unresolved, and maybe that’s just because I didn’t get what I was expecting — or hoping for? — at the end. There were some loose ends that needed tying up, and Lazarus’s role in particular felt anticlimactic.

That being said, I appreciated Park’s smooth writing and the various nuggets of genius sprinkled throughout the novel, so I’ll leave you with one more:

“I realized then that I hated when people tried to find the silver lining in tragedy. There was no upside, none. I did not grow from it, or become a better person, or learn to appreciate life, or any such cliche. . . . death would not seed some kind of beautiful legacy . . . It’d just make those [she] left behind feel sad and morose.” (p. 235)

Overall: 3/5 stars. Recommended for those with an interest in family relationships and diaspora literature.

Review: The Waiter

I was drawn to The Waiter — a translation of the Swedish work by Mattias Faldbakken — for a simple reason: the book is advertised as a portrait in miniature, an intimate and classical-feeling depiction of one man’s life as a waiter within the confines of a prestigious and centuries-old family eatery. It didn’t hurt that the book was compared to Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow — a decadent, exquisite gem of a novel.

While it’s true that both novels employ dense prose with a classical vibe and settings that are confined to one particular space, the similarities end there.

The Waiter opens with an introduction to the title character: a middle-aged waiter in the well-established European restaurant called “The Hills.” The waiter offers a vessel for readers to traverse the inner-workings of the restaurant (which itself is merely a means of exposing readers to the choreography and near-relationship of waitstaff in proximity to customers on a daily basis). Our unnamed title character puts forth a series of cynical observations about the restaurant staff, the diners, the esteemed artwork crammed onto the walls, and the restaurant itself with little rhyme or reason.

“The Hills is one of the capital’s defining institutions, one of which gives Oslo character and draws the long lines. The space, or the premises, where I now and will forever stand in my waiter’s jacket, is an intricate meshwork of scraped-together items, and I sometimes feel sick at the thought that the longest-standing, most constant and unchanging ‘traditional place’ is a mosaic of items dragged and scraped together.”

Time and again, the waiter makes it perfectly clear to readers: he is meticulous, he is old-fashioned and tetchy when routine is disrupted, and he is very preoccupied with the hobby of ensuring things are done as nearly perfect as possible. In fact, at more than one juncture, I wondered if the character might be intended to exude signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so intent is he on following certain procedures repeatedly with or without necessity, and on doing things just-so. I’m fairly certain the author did not intend this conclusion, though; I think readers are just supposed to find the waiter steeped in habit as well as socially awkward and stand-offish.

One of the things I loved most about Towles’s Gentleman is that the novel offered readers a portrait of confinement amid luxury and a constantly shifting political and social landscape within the hotel over the course of several decades. Rather than offer readers just one major character to latch onto, though, Towles provided a host of other fastidiously drawn, intriguing individuals to play supporting roles.

While readers are exposed greatly to the waiter’s innermost ramblings, Faldbakken takes a huge misstep with the omission of other significant characterization. Sure, there are a slew of other cast members introduced — “the Pig,” a regular customer of a commanding sort of presence; Sellers, a rowdy party-boy given behavioral freedoms others aren’t on the basis of his several acquisitions for The Hills; Child Lady, a beautiful woman with otherwise very little clear significance to the story; Edgar and Anna, a father-daughter duo that regularly patronize the restaurant and serve as the waiter’s only friends; and a handful of restaurant workers — but the characters themselves don’t feel significant.

Now that I think of it, allow me to correct myself — characterization is not shortchanged in The Waiter; it’s purpose that the novel is severely lacking. All of the aforementioned characters have distinct features and personalities, but at the end of the novel, I couldn’t really tell you why most of them were included in the work. At all.

And that brings me to the saddest point: the plot is virtually nonexistent. Readers spend a few days in the waiter’s hemisphere, privy to his inner ramblings and increasingly neurotic behaviors, only to arrive at a conclusion that is head-scratchingly underwhelming. I’m not sure what Faldbakken envisioned as the driving force behind this narrative, but it certainly was not plot. Was there a climax? Was there a purpose behind the waiter’s actions? Was there a point to Anna’s stay? I don’t know. And I’m not going to lie: this uncertainty on my end left me wondering for several days — am I missing something, here?

To be sure, there are some gems tucked in amid the perplexing meandering of the narrative; a few times, I positively chortled. And Faldbakken makes some painfully accurate estimations of modern culture; each time, I kept cheering and thinking — Now we’re getting somewhere! Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“It’s as though my face is a cast of all the concerns that have built up within me over the years: the concerns are the mold for my face.”

and

“‘The adornment of a city is manpower, of a body beauty, of a soul wisdom, of an object durability, of a speech truth,’ Gorgias writes in the Encomium of Helen. The part about the body is the only one which still applies, it seems.”

A particular favorite, relating to the minds of children:

“There are a few golden years between infancy and the teenage years, Edgar says, when kids are as smart as they’re ever going to be, or that’s how it seems, when they’re still uncorrupted.”

There were several other striking observations made by the author which redeemed this otherwise sadly-under-edited work, and it’s those bits and pieces that I’ve added to my journal which make The Waiter a difficult work to rate. I wanted to love this novel so much, but I ultimately found the most fundamental aspect — a purpose, a driving force — lacking, or too obscure to be discerned by my brain.

Overall: 2 stars.

The Waiter was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I’m grateful to Simon & Schuster / Scout Press for sharing a free digital copy with me in advance of publication and my thoughts are all my own — in no way affected by the exchange of goods and services.

Review: The Reluctant Healer

Have you ever considered the effect positive thinking, directed energies, and alternative healing practices can have on your health? If you were struggling with a malady undiagnosed by dozens of specialists, or facing imminent death at the hands of a cancer that is unresponsive to widely-used methods such as chemotherapy and radiation, would you consider visiting an unlicensed — and possibly ineffective — individual on the basis of their rumored potential healing energy? Do you believe that hope can produce a change in our physical and mental states of being?

These questions — and plenty others — are all considerations around which author Andrew Himmel has crafted his debut novel, The Reluctant Healer. Set in New York in the present day, The Reluctant Healer centers on one man’s lifelong notions about medicine and purpose and self-identity. Will Alexander is a lawyer (and not altogether a prominent one) at an up-and-coming firm when he meets Erica, a social worker and spiritual healer. Erica isn’t shy when it comes to her unconventional beliefs about medicine, the mind, and our methods of coping; and she’s quick to point out that Will hosts some sort of powerful (albeit impossible-to-pinpoint) healing properties. What ensues is a careening, dubious tale of the route to alternative healing — from both a healer and healee’s perspective — that will undoubtedly leave you scratching your head. But in a good way, most of the time.

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I went into this book with several strong preconceived notions: that modern (Western) medicine is always the best first path to healing, that doctors sometimes overprescribe antibiotics but for the most part they are well-intentioned, and that spiritual or alternative healers are, in effect, quacks.

From the first chapter, Himmel challenges these notions. Erica introduces the idea of a fastly-growing vaccine-resistant population that, for decades, has thrived without strains of polio or smallpox or other distant maladies, but will soon fall prey to new strains of these viruses that our bodies will not be capable of defeating thanks to decades of preventative vaccination. Whew. That’s a big concept for this very stubborn brain to swallow, and I have to be honest, friends: I’m most definitely, 100% not going to stop vaccinating my child. Himmel’s very brief digression on vaccination at the start of the book did nothing to change my mind about that, and I’m glad that the novel wasn’t an attempt to sway readers in a certain direction as far as that (very controversial) topic is concerned.

However . . . Himmel did succeed in convincing me that much of our healing can be attributed to the placebo effect. Essentially, if we believe we are being treated effectively or that we are being administered something that will cure us or that there is even a fragment of a chance some therapy will cure our maladies, we are more likely to be healed than not. And that, my friends, is a fascinating concept upon which to base a novel.

Characterization was a bit of a struggle for me, but not because Himmel didn’t write consistently; rather, I had a difficult time connecting to the characters because their belief systems — or their life situations — were so radically different from my own. Erica was completely inaccessible to me: she was so persistently vocal (and manic) about the art of healing, it was a bit, for me, like listening to a vegan or crossfit junkie. Okay, we get it — you live an alternative lifestyle. And Will was extraordinarily privileged. I mean, as a teacher, I don’t even get a paid six weeks after giving birth (unless I have stored up my yearly allotment of 10 days for several years in a row), but here we have a middling lawyer at a large law firm who is paid a substantial salary for at least six months to do whatever the hell he wants with his life.

You see what I mean? Hard to connect. Sometimes I’m able to suspend disbelief if the premise of the novel contains elements of fantasy; however, with The Reluctant Healer, I wasn’t able to ignore my feelings of doubt as I knew the work was meant to closely mimic real-life scenarios and belief systems.

As far as the plot goes, again, elements were far-fetched — a whole lotta privilege up in here, folks — but I was certainly taken in by the portions of the novel that discussed healing events Will and Erica attended, or philosophies surrounding alternative medicine. And the work goes beyond that, too; beyond the spiritual and physical healing concepts. In truth, this is a novel about personal growth, the power of our minds as instruments of healing, and the far-reaching benefits of hope.

At the risk of rambling, I present to you a favorite passage:

“Dream and strive and reach. It’s all important, and it’s all well and good. But in all of the excitement and wonder about the future . . . don’t discount the possibility that right here, right now, might be what is most important. Not what your talents and ambitions may someday achieve, but what you’re involved with right now. Because if you can’t do that, if you can’t capture the immediacy and joy of the present moment, then you’re at the mercy of anticipation, with every anxious thought thrown to the future, robbing the present of its impact, and you’ll miss out on everything.”

Damn.

Himmel dropped truth-bombs like this here and there throughout the novel, and these gems are r e s o n a t i n g.

Overall: 3/5 starsThe Reluctant Healer releases TODAY and I highly, highly recommend this book to those with an interest in alternative medicine and/or books that will challenge preconceived notions.

Note: This novel was sent to me free of charge by Smith Publicity in exchange for my honest review/opinions on the book. All thoughts are my own and have not been influenced in any way by the publisher or author.