A criminal mind — or is it?
Alice LaPlante's debut novel takes us into the head of a brilliant woman losing her abilities to dementia
Alice LaPlante on the 2100 block of Sheffield (July 8, 2011)
The prime suspect? The slain woman's best friend, Dr. Jennifer White, a recently retired orthopedic surgeon who is also her neighbor on the 2100 block of Sheffield Avenue.
The essential twist to the crime story: The doctor has dementia and doesn't know whether or not she committed the crime. Even by the standard of the CBS drama "Criminal Minds," this is a complicated story, and one requiring the assurance of a gifted novelist to pull off.
This is the case at the heart of Alice LaPlante's debut novel, "Turn of Mind." More than a formulaic police procedural, or a mystery told from the observer or detective's point of view, the story is told in the first-person voice of the suspect herself, who reveals her brilliant but ever-shifting mind throughout the investigation.
In this expertly paced novel, LaPlante effectively brings readers into the mind of a woman who has been an impressive physician, a working mother, with a rich and complex constellation of family and friends, and whose mind lurches and grinds in ways that betray her. LaPlante has metabolized her personal experience and made it a compelling puzzle. "I don't believe fiction works when the writer is trying to send messages or preach or teach," LaPlante explains.
"Turn of Mind" may provide insight for those dealing with dementia, and LaPlante says she would be pleased if that were the case. But to categorize the novel as a dementia book and relegate it to the reference section would fail to recognize its effectiveness as a stunning act of imagination.
For more than a decade, the author has witnessed her aging mother's decline. Her parents still live in the Arlington Heights house where they raised their eight children. Alice, the second child, attended Buffalo Grove High School and then went on to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Teaching creative writing at Stanford and San Francisco State Universities, LaPlante lives in Palo Alto, Calif., with her life partner, David Renton, and her daughter, Sarah, 16, from a previous marriage. She returns to Arlington Heights with regularity to pitch in with caring for her parents.
After college, LaPlante lived for several years on Racine Avenue near DePaul University, a robust neighborhood. She says that "it's where my imagination has always tended to go when I sit down to write."
At the novel's center is the complex and fierce friendship between Jennifer White and the woman she may or may not have killed. In this sense, "Turn of Mind" evokes psychological literary thrillers such as Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" or Dorothy L. Sayers' "Gaudy Night."
Though "Turn of Mind" is hardly dogmatic, LaPlante acknowledges that being a strong feminist played into the novel's development. LaPlante is aware that the word has negative connotations. Recounting a recent conversation with her daughter on the subject, she says: "When I told her at the most basic level, a feminist is simply anyone who believes that women should not be held back from living the fullest, richest lives they are capable of simply because they are women, and they had the same capacity for good and bad, for joy and pain, as men, she got it."
Although "Turn of Mind" may be LaPlante's debut novel, she has influenced a generation of aspiring fiction writers as the author of "Method and Madness: The Making of a Story," her creative writing textbook, which is widely used in college classrooms.
On the risky technique of employing a character with dementia as her narrator, she laughingly says that she stands by the advice in her textbook.
"I did use it myself, and I believe it's solid!" she says.
Beyond the crime in the fictional newspaper story lies a complex reality. Maybe our best chance of figuring it out lies with the person apparently least able to offer a solution. Sometimes the most seemingly unreliable narrators can get at deeper truths than one might otherwise imagine.
Alice LaPlante will make several Chicago-area appearances in the coming week to read from "Turn of Mind," take questions and sign books.
•Noon Monday in the Lake Villa District Library, 1001 E. Grand Ave., Lake Villa; free, reservation required; lunch will be served; 847-356-7711.
•7 p.m. in the Fremont Library, 1170 N. Midlothian Rd., Mundelein; free, reservation required; 847-566-8702
•7 p.m. Tuesday in Anderson's Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville; free; 630-355-2665