A skeptical lawyer wrestles with a crisis of faith—gaining it, not losing it—as he discovers his own possibly supernatural powers in this debut novel of ideas.
Will Alexander is leading a mediocre, hollow life as an attorney for a Manhattan law firm when he meets Erica Wells, a social worker who incorporates New Age mysticism into her practice. He’s smitten by her green eyes; she’s smitten by his green aura, which only she can sense. Will takes Erica’s disparagement of Western evidence-based medicine in favor of “universal healing and energy”—featuring detoxification, herbal supplements, and regression therapy—for so much nonsense. But he puts up with her eccentric enthusiasms for the sake of her passion and vibrancy. But then, during a chance encounter, Will, with no effort or intention, apparently cures a legal client of an anxiety disorder. Others seek him out: He dispels a tech mogul’s fatal neurological ailment with a few minutes of meditation and sends an old man’s cancer into remission during a night of drinking. Will is nonplussed by all this: He doesn’t feel like he’s doing anything to cure people and thinks his successes might be a placebo effect or pure coincidence. Still, word of mouth creates demand for his services, so he sets up shop as the world’s most diffident healer, warning patients that he claims no special powers and makes no promises and telling them not to pay him unless they feel like it. Will’s self-disparagement perversely inspires trust, and his practice thrives—and makes him a target of a cynical investigative journalist intent on proving him a fraud.
Himmel’s entertaining novel is on one level a fine comedy of ideological manners. Much of it unfolds in funny, awkward dinner-table conversations as Erica floats her ardent mystical beliefs and dares her dubious companions to mock them while they search for ways to steer the conversation to safer waters. The author’s sharply etched characters and smart, observant prose shrewdly capture the ways people think and talk about religious and philosophical issues. “I was always struck by how he managed to marshal an articulate discourse in defense of shallow insights,” Will muses of one blowhard, and he calls the earnest, didactic New Age tomes Erica presses on him “Soviet propaganda without the charm.” But the tale takes Will’s hangdog spiritual quest seriously while avoiding the clichés of New Age fiction. There are no revealed certitudes, no channeling of omniscient beings from the astral plane. Will remains a flawed, neurotic man torn between his lawyerly devotion to evidence and logic and the haunting, ambiguous glimpses of supernatural forces that intrude on him. He is perpetually in doubt about whether his abilities are real or just luck and hopeful figments of the imagination—especially when they fail. And they work no miraculous healing in his own life. His new calling often feels like a drag and leads him into a serious ethical lapse; what enlightenment he gains comes through painful experience and self-examination rather than clairvoyance. As he grapples with metaphysical mysteries, even dyed-in-the-wool skeptics should find his struggle compelling.
A vivid evocation of the conflict between reason and spirituality.