"“This is a very impressive debut . . . No cardboard cutouts here. These are real people and Alexander makes us care about them.”"– Kirkus Reviews
In Alexander’s (The Fall of Summer, 2014) psychological thriller, a woman undergoing hypnotherapy has trouble distinguishing reality from visions of what seems to be another life.
Jane McBride’s trek into past-life regression therapy seems to be going well. She apparently experiences a “previous lifetime” when under hypnosis, seeing herself as a nun. But therapist Twyla refuses further sessions with Jane, who’s been increasingly unresponsive and harder to pull out of her hypnotic state. Unfortunately, real life for Jane involves philandering, alcoholic husband Jimmy and sexually harassing boss John Briggs at cosmetics company DSRR. She prefers the regression, where she feels love for a man she recurrently sees. Jane tries self-hypnosis, and soon the regressions bleed into her dreams and waking state, leaving her baffled as to what her reality truly is. In spite of the plot, the author doesn’t relay the story as a twisted, illusory narrative. It’s easy to discern when Jane is fully conscious, and her repeated jumps into visions of another place or time are also perfectly clear. It’s really not until the book’s final act that things get much more disorienting for the protagonist—and likely readers as well. Jane’s everydayness is rife with appetizing plot developments: Jimmy blames Jane for his adulterous ways, while the repugnant Briggs proves rather testy when Jane turns down his advances. The hypnotic sequences bolster the story with mystery, especially because Jane is sure, for instance, that she recognizes a farmhouse she keeps seeing. Supporting characters are dynamic, and not all are bad: sympathetic psychiatrist Eric Alford is willing to dabble in hypnosis on Jane’s behalf, and her work assistant/friend Carrie is charmingly cynical. Along the way, Alexander drops hints as to what’s truly going on, though he’s so good at that that a few readers may guess the ending. Nevertheless, the novel-long buildup has a strong, dizzyingly fun payoff. While the story concludes by resolving Jane’s dilemma, the coda opens the book to interpretation (or reinterpretation) and may have some readers flipping back to Page 1.
An arresting novel that grounds its
story first before spinning readers off into a rewarding, dreamlike finale.
A typical coming-of-age novel with a couple of murders thrown in.
Debut novelist Alexander introduces us to DJ Elders; his kid sister, Patty; and their feckless father, Dale (Piels beer’s best customer). The time is the mid-1960s, and the place is Hardscrabble, a little town on Long Island. DJ is a decent kid who just wants to figure out his future and lose his virginity. There are, of course, others in this little town, like DJ’s best friend, Ike O’Reilly, who has a very compromised heart; DJ’s uncles Wendell and the wise Monty; and DJ’s girlfriend, Leslie, caught between desires and defenses. Then there’s Greta, a cultured older woman who befriends DJ and Patty, who imagines that the poet Rupert Brooke was her lover. The engine of the plot, though, is Carlyn Canova, who is happy to take DJ’s virginity. She is a decade older than DJ, blonde, curvaceous, lusty and mysterious—every boy’s wet dream. She is also very likely a psychopath, literally a femme fatale. The cop who caught Carlyn and DJ in her Mustang and threatened them winds up dead a couple of weeks later. Then Bobby Litchfield, local big man on campus, with whom Carlyn had been cheating on DJ—and who also took advantage of Patty—winds up dead in the same fashion. Carlyn has disappeared. Was she the murderer? Alexander not only spins a very good story with a strong plot, but he knows his characters—knows, for example, that Greta can be flawed but still a good and wise person (same for Monty). There are nice period touches, like Queen for a Day and motor oil in cans and Piels beer. He is not averse to being lyrical, and he has a gift for it. And the wrap-up is sufficiently surprising but also quite believable. No cardboard cutouts here. These are real people, and Alexander makes us care about them.
This is a very impressive debut. One looks forward to Alexander’s second novel, due out next year.