In this literary novel, a psychiatrist spends his 75th birthday dealing with the final details before his planned suicide.
The prolific Appel (The Liars’ Asylum, 2017, etc.) often begins his stories with a bang, and his latest book’s opening sentence is no exception: “On the day he was to hang himself, Millard Salter made his bed for the first time in fifty-seven years.” Although he’s not disappointed, unhappy, or ill, is still working as a psychiatrist, and has launched most of his children well in life, Millard hopes to avoid dying “dependent or diminished.” He’s in love with Delilah, 62, a severely ill woman whom he’s agreed to help die on this day, also his 75th birthday. He looks back on his long career when he stops by his office; reminisces about his family and two marriages as he visits his ex-wife Carol’s apartment and second wife Isabelle’s grave; and lunches with his youngest son, a 43-year-old layabout who doesn’t mention his father’s birthday. Millard’s plans are rationally thought out, but the irrational keeps erupting during his day: a lynx cub gets loose in the hospital; an explosion blasts the post office near his lunch meeting; a usurper has been buried in the psychiatrist’s spot next to Isabelle. (A fix is promised; “I’ll be back tomorrow to check,” says Millard in a secret joke.) A warmhearted surprise also awaits Millard, but whether any of this will distract him from his intent will be disclosed only in the final line. A physician, attorney, and bioethicist, Appel brings well-informed thoughtfulness, as always, to this work. There’s an excellent case to be made for Millard’s continued engagement in the world, and the author clearly presents it in all fairness. Equally, though, he deftly makes a case for letting go: of expectations for one’s children, of plans for tomorrow, of freedom from worry. Appel’s preoccupation with secrecy and helpful or seductive fictions enrich the tale, too, as with the cab driver whose master’s thesis involves getting men to pretend they know about nonexistent things.
A darkly comic, thought-provoking, well-told story.