Piece of Mind is a breezy read with a compassionate heart. Michelle Adelman’s debut novel introduces a heroine whose failings, grief, and disability have become the background music of her life, but who nonetheless grows stronger because of her scars.
Lucy suffers from a traumatic brain injury, which affects her executive functioning: her organizational skills, time management and impulse control are basically non-existent. She often rattles off her perceived shortcomings by way of introduction, yet balks at the term “disabled.”
Lucy’s family dynamic provides drama when the poetic telling of her condition falls short. Each member is ill-equipped to deal with each other’s needs — even Lucy’s father, who helps keep her on track day-to-day. He’s convinced that Lucy can do anything a “normal” woman can do, but his expectations haven’t inspired Lucy in the way that he might have hoped. Instead of feeling empowered, she both rejects help that might come from embracing her limitations and rejects her own ability to function normally. She’s caught in a limbo of ambivalence.
The author hits her stride when she deals with the small attempts and failures of Lucy’s family. Her father might have the best of intentions but when he tries to help Lucy he’s playing out a fantasy of his own success as a parent. Meeting her actual needs would reflect too painfully on his shortcomings and losses. However, her father is an essential part of Lucy’s life, both as a friend and a caregiver. Adelman explores this conditional love, and the way it’s exacerbated by delusion, which can be so subtly damaging within the context of a parent-child relationship.
Drawing inspiration from her own sister, Adelman avoids condescending to her characters and, as a result, is overly cautious in her writing. It’s hard to really worry about Lucy’s safety or well-being, just as it’s hard to fully root for her success. Riskier passages — like the odd and beautiful opening chapter in which Lucy describes incurring her injury, connecting the incident to ownership of her soul and Tu B’Shvat — are infrequent. In that first chapter, readers become Lucy, something that’s often missing despite the first-person narrative. Lucy’s altered perceptions form the backbone of her experiences — it almost doesn’t matter what’s clinically abnormal about her brain. So it’s disappointing to search Piece of Mind for what it feels like to be Lucy and encounter mostly literal, symptomatic experiences instead.
Lucy is strongest and most complex when her adult struggles are contrasted against her childlike need for care. As the “normal” people around her suffer breakdowns, admit to loss, and reveal that they’re as inadequate as Lucy thinks herself to be, Adelman points out that the triumphant isolation of self-sufficiency isn’t such a great thing, after all.
Piece of Mind’s straightforward style should make it appealing to a wide variety of readers. The choice to include examples of Lucy’s sketches, and the novel’s gloss over her sexual experiences, will extend its appeal to an even younger audience. Fans of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or even R.J Palacio’s Wonder will be interested, and readers simply looking for a story about growing into the self that’s waiting for you will be equally rewarded.
Michelle Adelman’s debut novel introduces a heroine whose failings, grief, and disability have become the background music of her life, but who nonetheless grows stronger because of her scars. Jewish Book Council chatted with the author about this unusual novel, Piece of Mind, its portrayal of the family dynamics in dealing with disability, and how Judaism emerged as a source of comfort to its protagonist, Lucy.
Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone: Your background is in nonfiction and journalism. How did you become interested in writing fiction? And how did you use those skills when you wrote this novel?
Michelle Adelman: I started working in magazines, but after a couple of years I discovered that I wanted to write more creatively. I did an MFA in fiction and started to write short stories and then realized I wanted to write a novel.
The first elements of Piece of Mind came from my sister, who inspired Lucy. They were rooted in my observations, almost in an essayistic way. But I had to do a lot of research because as a family we never really talked about her traumatic brain injury. I enjoyed the research process, but also that I wasn’t constricted to facts.
NLG: Did anything else help clarify how you wanted to tell this story?
MA: I started writing the book in third person. But when I switched to first person, a lot of my inadvertent judgement went away. It wasn’t a conscious shift, but it granted the reader more empathy.
NLG: Lucy’s condition is wrought by tragedy and accident. Why did you want to use more of the same to move the plot forward?
MA: I think I needed something to propel Lucy into the unfamiliar.
NLG: So it had to be something sudden.
MA: Yes, an accident was the only way I could conceive of it happening. It was the only way to push her past what she thinks she can do. And, it helped up the drama.
NLG: Can you tell me about Lucy’s relationship to her father? It’s loving but it’s definitely not healthy.
MA: I wanted the love and care to be there — the good intentions were important. But I also wanted to convey that almost delusional quality they’re both living in. They’ve coexisted in the same way for so long that they’ve become codependent.
NLG: They don’t seem totally happy, but they also don’t seem like they want to change.
MA: Exactly. It’s unclear if either of them knows there’s an issue.
NLG: Why is Lucy’s mom out of the picture, too? It’s almost too much! Lucy’s father keeps her alive, and loves her, but isn’t totally practical. I felt more sad about Lucy’s longing for her mother than I did about her father’s death.
MA: I always had the mother out of the picture, because I think it’s harder for fathers and daughters to relate and wanted to explore that dynamic. The importance of a mother figure grew as I was writing. Lucy is seeking that maternal relationship.
NLG: Why is Lucy so opposed to the idea of being “disabled”?
MA: It’s part of the way she’s lived with her dad for so long, to be conditioned to think that her greatest goal is to be “normal.” But her development in the book is to understand that no one is normal or perfect, and that it would be much better for her if she took the world on her own terms. That refusal is a fundamental piece of her character.
NLG: Something that I love about Lucy is her inability to function gracefully. By refusing or being unable to do basic tasks, she throws the farce of our habits into high relief. It’s like she can’t help but ask, “what’s the point of doing it this way?”
MA: She’s almost like a time traveler or someone from another planet!
NLG: The Judaism in Piece of Mind seems to come up more strongly after tragedy strikes and Lucy needs comforting.
MA: I realized that when these characters are dealing with tragedy and accidents, they would turn to religion to help explain what’s happening. It made sense that Lucy would go back to her Jewishness to explain the bigger world around her. Her father’s belief system plays a role in who he is and how he abided by tradition. It grounds their whole family.
Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone is a dance artist, choreographer, curator, writer and editor living in NYC. Read her dance criticism at The Dance Enthusiast and peep her curation @thebunkerpresents.