A summer job as a recreational therapist in a New York City psychiatric hospital unlocks the door to self-discovery for this tale’s young heroine.
King (A Woman Walking: 2nd Edition, 2016, etc.) reaches back to her own youthful work experience to create the backdrop for her latest novel—a depressing state institution in which fragile, and sometimes violent, patients are housed rather than treated. It is 1956, and 19-year-old Rennie Weinstein needs a summer job that will pay enough to get her through her senior year of college. Concordia Hospital, home to 6,000 patients in Queens, seems to offer a better opportunity than the standard camp/swimming instructor/coffee shop summer jobs: $60 a week to show up, take the women out to play, don’t lose anyone, and go home. Experience in working with mentally ill patients not required. And no training offered. Despite the requisite Loyalty Oath that she must sign to be a state employee (although the Senate hearings ended in 1954, the debris of McCarthyism still lingers), something Rennie considers repugnant, she decides to accept the position. Nervous, confused, and burdened by her own substantial load of emotional baggage, Rennie finds herself breaking the cardinal rules of employment at Concordia, as emphasized by the director, Jack Carson: “Don’t get personal. Don’t get friendly. Don’t offer to help.” As the summer progresses, she forges friendships with a remarkable assortment of secondary characters— Bruce, the son of the head psychiatrist at Concordia; Yanni, an Israeli cafe owner; and three protective construction workers who come to her rescue more than once. More important, she begins to earn a modicum of trust among the patients. Through these vivid relationships, Rennie begins to see the world beyond her own self-involvement. King makes effective use of the first-person narrative. Because the patients are depicted through Rennie’s eyes, and she is unencumbered by the details of diagnosis and prognosis, they are portrayed with a visceral poignancy and compassion (“The women ran to the field like kids let out of school for summer vacation. They ran and shouted and argued and cheered, releasing pent up energy, laughing when someone hit a home run”). The negative aspect of being inside Rennie’s head is that readers have to endure a bit too many of her overwrought anxiety attacks.
An intriguing, sometimes-painful reminder of 1950s culture that offers enough bright spots to make this novel an enjoyable read.