Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review: "The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving" by Jonathan Evison

Even though the title of this book makes it sound like a textbook, Jonathan Evison's new novel is a wry, funny, and (dare I say) heartwarming journey of one man's emotional recovery through the unlikeliest of processes.

To say Benjamin Benjamin's life has fallen apart would be an understatement. A former stay-at-home father, in an instant, he lost everything—his family, his marriage, his home, and his livelihood. After a long period of self-loathing and drinking, with no job prospects on the horizon, he enrolls in a night course called "The Fundamentals of Caregiving." In the course, he learns how to insert catheters and correctly transfer clients from wheelchair to bed or toilet, he learns about professionalism, and keeping physical and emotional distance between client and provider, and he comes away with a lot of different checklists on how to be a good caregiver.

Yet Ben's first job, caring for 19-year-old Trevor, a rebellious adolescent in the advanced stages of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, proves that all of the checklists and procedures don't help you actually deal with your client. Ben and Trevor forge a connection based on routine, ogling at women, watching cable, and dreaming of all of the places they'll never go, but Ben is unprepared for the upheaval in everyone's lives which occurs when Trevor's estranged father tries to visit. All of the emotional distance in the world can't keep Ben from reflecting his own failures in this situation.

While Ben is trying to do right by Trevor, he's also continuing to deal with the after-effects of his own tragedy. His wife is trying to serve him with divorce papers, his neighbors are complaining about him, his always-solid best friend is having his own issues of conscience, and Ben just wants it all to go away. When he and Trevor embark on a roadtrip to visit Trevor's father, all of his crises come to a head as they come into contact with some interesting people along the way.

I really enjoyed the way Evison let this story unfold. I worried it might be a little too wry and sarcastic, but he balanced those qualities nicely with all of the emotional issues the characters dealt with. I also liked that the book didn't end on a maudlin note as I felt it would. While Ben is immensely needy and unstable (and who wouldn't be after what he has been through), through caregiving he starts to find himself again, although he is clearly getting as much care as he's giving.

This is a really enjoyable book populated with characters who are much more complex than you think they are. I'm now intrigued to go back and read some of Evison's earlier books.

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