In this novel of discovery, a jaded mental health professional breaks his own rules to assist a devoted couple caught up in an unforgiving system and finds himself opening up in ways he never imagined.
Downsized from an administrative job in the corporate mental health system, psychologist Michael has built a new career as an assessment specialist in a busy Nashville emergency room, where, he admits, “Sometimes I wonder which side of the assessment desk I belong on.” Michael accepts his forced move with philosophical resignation and gallows humor, recognizing the system’s many limitations while placing strict limits on his involvement with patients, whose needs threaten to drown him. His carefully protected boundaries are breached one afternoon when, as Michael prepares to head home and self-medicate with alcohol and TV, two elderly people enter his emergency room and awaken emotions and longings he had thought buried forever. John and Maggie Dalton, a devoted married couple, become enmeshed in the mental health system when John becomes disoriented and attacks his wife, thinking she is an intruder in their home. Touched by their obvious deep affection for each other, Michael risks his job and his carefully cultivated objectivity to help them negotiate a system that seems determined to ensnare John and separate him from Maggie. Along the way, Michael confronts the loss of his own parents and begins the process of assembling a new family. A mental health professional himself, Pritchard (Stepfathers’ Anonymous Playbook, 1997) presents a convincing picture of well-intentioned specialists overwhelmed by patient needs and a labyrinthine bureaucracy. The novel is also a compelling and respectful portrait of the dignity and terrors of old age, when disabilities may threaten independence. The reader is drawn into Michael’s life-changing admiration for John and Maggie, although sometimes the couple is a bit too perfect to be true. In addition, there are some missed opportunities in the narrative. Almost immediately, Michael is aware that John and Maggie remind him of his parents, but his relationship with them goes relatively unexplored. Another intriguing subplot, of an unscrupulous doctor who commits patients to populate his new drug study, is also disappointingly dropped. The engaging novel provides a good read, however, and an ending that is both satisfyingly positive and realistic.
An appealing, if uneven, story of a cynic who grasps at a second chance at happiness.