The book begins with Grace, a calm and confident therapist in Montreal, who hasn't seemed to have connected with anyone since her divorce. It continues with sections centered on one of her patients, Annie, 16 years old with braces and a cutting habit, and Grace's ex-husband, Mitch, also a therapist who leaves the woman he’s been living with to work for a month in a remote Arctic village. They each pick up unlikely strays, passing the point of agreement barely registering that they've even made a choice.
I’ve been curious for some time about what we owe each other. I believe in personal responsibility and that as part of a community we are responsible for each other. To a point. As one character notes, you can’t help everybody. For a therapist, of course, it must be especially hard to find that balance, to care enough about the people who come to you to listen and go beyond listening to what they are not telling you, but not to care so much that you go over the line that is the limit of your responsibility. But then when it comes to your personal relationships, how do you continue across that line you’ve worked so hard to draw? And how do you not feel like a failure, both as a therapist and as a person, when a patient succumbs in spite of your efforts? Other characters in this book struggle with what they owe their parents, balancing the need to escape with the depth of the tie.
I’d looked forward to some new insight about how much to give; what's too much; what's not enough. However, the situations the characters find themselves in are so outlandish that I cannot extract anything that speaks to life as I know it. Still, seeing my questions worked out in the context of therapists provides an interesting slant.
As I was reading, I mostly bought it, going along as situations start out badly and get worse. Once in a while, I found some of the characters so distasteful and some of their motives so mysterious that I had trouble going on. But I was glad I stuck with it. And certainly there was much that I recognised, such as the characters who hid themselves and didn't want finding.
The second time I read it, I was more willing to let go of my preconceptions, but was reading more for craft than for story. Ohlin has found an interesting balance between showing and telling. The drama of her scenes carries the story, and a word here, a gesture there illuminate what is not said. Then sometimes in the narrative breaks she gives us a direct description of the character’s feelings.
For years he had occasionally gone out with some divorced woman . . . after which he would let things drop . He became the guy who didn’t call. The guy who met your kid and played catch with him one weekend, then never came around again. It wasn’t heartlessness so much as apathy.
I appreciated the occasional guidepost into what is for me unfamiliar territory. For instance, just when Mitch’s new relationship seems to be deepening the way he wants, he learns something about himself and “(h)e was so disappointed in himself, so ashamed, that he began to crave escape. ” That is why he chose to go to the Arctic. Ohlin’s characters often don’t understand their own motivations, so it feels natural for us to discover the bare statement of them as they do. It’s an effective technique.
There are a number of interesting parallels that subtly tie the story together, such as a patient of Grace’s who loves his dog more than his wife, and Mitch loving his girlfriend’s son more that her. Watching these work out through the story is great fun if you are interested in how a story is put together. The ending is satisfying, something that has become rare, so I treasure it.