Finger by Finger: a review of Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Turn of Mind
Cover image:
Atlantic Monthly Press
Near the beginning of Alice LaPlante's engrossing debut novel, Turn of Mind, the protagonist, Dr. Jennifer White MD., now in the throes of Alzheimer's Disease, recalls a trip she and her husband, James, took to St Petersburg, Russia. At a gallery, she is especially taken with a very valuable fifteenth century icon of Theotokos of the Three Hands. It shows the Virgin Mother holding the Christ Child in one hand, her other hand at her breast in an attitude of awe. But at the bottom of the icon there rests the third extremity, the severed hand of St. John Damascene, which the Virgin, as the story went, had miraculously reattached; a reminder of Her healing qualities. Doctor White just happens to be a hand surgeon, thus her infatuation with the icon. Her reluctant husband soon relents, purchasing the expensive piece of art as a gift. When she shows the object to her best friend and neighbor, Amanda O'Toole, Amanda reacts in a disturbingly selfish way. "I want this" she demands of her friend, while fondling the the icon. Naturally, Jennifer, citing her unique attachment, refuses. In this way their adversarial friendship progresses, these kinds of exchanges being, as we later learn, only a hint of their tangled, toxic relationship.

Ms. LaPlante employs an unreliable narrator (Jennifer) to relate the story of her own descent into the madness of Alzheimer's. The reader is obliged to fill in the blanks left by her failing memory with the help of only a few supporting characters identified through italicized text. Amanda, it turns out, has been brutally murdered, four fingers of one hand surgically removed, posthumously. Jennifer, who, at this point, cannot remember even her caretaker whom she sees daily, not to mention her children, Mark and Fiona, who visit sporadically throughout, is, whether because of or regardless of her affliction, a person of interest in the crime. Slowly but surely a mystery unfolds, transforming the novel from psychological drama to mystery/thriller by its conclusion. By no means is this a bad thing. Contrarily, it sharpens the initially blurry tale, slowly removing one gauzy layer at a time.

Alice LaPlante
Turn of Mind is a wonderfully complex work, evocative of masters like Poe (The Tell-Tale Heart, Cask of the Amontillado), Nabokov (Pale Fire), most recently Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and Christopher Nolan (Memento). LaPlante paces her novel well, weaving the loathsome symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease with what capabilities of recall that are left to her protagonist, teasing the reader into sympathy. When her caretaker asks Jennifer to "Write whatever happened today. Write about your childhood. Write whatever you remember" she scribbles this:
"I remember my first wrist arthrodesis. The pressure of knife against skin, the slight give when it finally sliced through. The resilience of muscle. My surgical scissors scraping bone And afterwards, peeling off the bloody gloves finger by finger."
 For a first novel, Ms. LaPlante show much restraint. She ends the mystery with a neck-jerking twist that is only subtly telegraphed. But she demonstrates a seasoned skill of the mystery yarn: knowing how to peel the bloody glove off.

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; 1 edition (July 5, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0802119778
ISBN-13: 978-0802119773


  1. @ Dean J. Baker. Thanks, and glad you did.

  2. This is a good review. It makes me want to get the book. In fact I'm going to look it up on Amazon now. Found you on book blogs and following.

  3. Thanks Sharon. Nice to know the reviews have some influence. I'll find you on Book Blogs.


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