Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Review: "Imagine Me Gone" by Adam Haslett

How much are we willing to sacrifice to help those we love? Are we willing to put aside our own happiness for a fleeting chance at saving another?

When Margaret learns that her fiancée John has been hospitalized for depression, it throws her completely. This is 1960s London and she is a transplanted American, in love with John's professional and public steadfastness and his emotional vulnerability when the two are alone. She knows she must make a choice: should she support John through his time of need and marry him despite not knowing whether his illness will return (as it has in the past), or should she try and find a way out, follow a steadier and more certain path?

Her decision to put her faith in John and their love seems like the right one at first. The couple raises three children, but Margaret realizes she needs to be the realistic one, the disciplinarian, while John's more mercurial moods endear him to their children. It's not long before it becomes clear that their eldest son, Michael, intense, passionate, and fiercely intelligent, is plagued by many of the same demons his father is. This manifests itself into borderline obsessive emotional attachments with women, and the same type of obsessive belief in certain social causes.

As Michael struggles with adulthood, love, employment, and simply surviving on a daily basis, it falls to Margaret and her two other children, Celia and Alec, to care for him, to endure his mood swings and his anxieties, and protect both Michael and their mother from the challenges of a life plagued by mental illness and anguish. But to do so, Celia and Alec must put their own relationships and careers at risk, which becomes a more difficult choice when having to do it time and time again.

As you'd expect from a book about a family's struggles with mental illness, Imagine Me Gone is moving and poignant. Adam Haslett, whose previous books (You Are Not a Stranger Here and Union Atlantic) dazzled me, is a tremendously talented writer, and he has created vivid, complex characters, none more so than Michael. My challenge with this book, however, is that in telling the book from each character's perspective, Haslett chooses to tell Michael's story through his delusions, fantasies, obsessions, and paranoia. It makes the book, particularly his chapters, difficult to read and understand, and while they give insight into Michael's mind, they don't advance the story in any way.

This is a well-told story of a family barely holding themselves together. But while the story is an emotional one, I had trouble connecting with it in many places. It almost seemed that Michael's psychological issues, told in vivid color, dulled everyone else's stories alongside his. But Haslett's writing is still something to behold.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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