Posted by: Jeanie F | July 29, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

For me, the unreliable narrator always makes for a fascinating read. Make the unreliable narrator the prime suspect of a murder mystery and the plot, as they say, thickens. Take the murder mystery and add intelligent and well-informed writing, making it that most elusive genre – a literary thriller – and you have a real winner. Alice LaPlante’s debut novel, Turn of Mind, is all of the above.

The narrator of this spellbinding story is Dr. Jennifer White, a renowned orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hand surgery. What makes her unreliable is the fact that at age 65, she is in an  advancing stage of Alzheimer’s Disease. What makes her a prime suspect is that the murder victim, Jennifer’s best friend Amanda, was found with four fingers of her right hand surgically amputated.

We are brought into Jennifer’s world, a world that continually shape-shifts, as she tells us this:

Something has happened. You can always tell. You come to and find wreckage: a smashed lamp, a devastated human face that shivers on the verge of being recognizable. Occasionally someone in uniform: a paramedic, a nurse. A hand extended with a pill. Or poised to insert a needle.

The story unfolds mainly through conversations between Jennifer and other characters: her grown children, her caregiver, the detective investigating the crime to name a few. Some of these people are alive. Others are dead, such as her parents, husband, Amanda.

At other times we share Jennifer’s observations of her surroundings, such as the opening paragraph quoted above. These become less and less trustworthy as her disease advances, her ability to understand and interpret her environment deteriorating through the course of the book.

It is through this sometimes distorted view of Jennifer’s life that we learn of the complex relationship she and Amanda shared, one of love but also something darker. It becomes obvious that while Jennifer admires Amanda’s strength, her strong will, her intelligent companionship, there are good reasons not to trust her completely. We have to wonder – and we do – whether a mind that often misinterprets reality can find enough reason for a dedicated and devoted friend and doctor to commit the unthinkable.

What remains intact for Jennifer is her intelligence, her wry humor, her remarkable medical memory. In a  highly dramatic scene between the detective and Jennifer’s daughter, Fiona, Jennifer observes Fiona wringing her hands. Her explanation is this:

Wringing her hands. A rough motion, this grasping and twisting of the metacarpal phalangeal joints, as if trying to extract the ligaments and tendons from under the skin.

We find that throughout her adult life Jennifer has often escaped from hard realities by medically intellectualizing those things that she cannot face.

The mystery itself – who killed Amanda and why – makes this a real page turner. I devoured the book in a day, unable to put it down. But it is LaPlante’s feel for her narrator, her ability to make us love and cheer for the suffering Dr. White, that gives this book its heart.

I really cannot recommend it highly enough.

Grade: A


  1. Haven’t had a chance to fit this one in yet, but it sounds wonderful. Glad u loved it. (wish I had the whole summer off from work to read) LOL

  2. Diane, I really hope you have time to read this book. It’s a perfect summer read. I almost wish I hadn’t read it yet, because now I can’t look forward to reading it!

  3. I need to check with you more often for book ideas – this one sounds so good.

    • I’ve beeN “on hiatus” for a couple of months. I’m ready to get back to blogging. Thanks for sticking with me! New post by end of the week.

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