Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: "Millard Salter's Last Day" by Jacob M. Appel

Today is Millard Salter's 75th birthday. He has a pretty full day planned—a busy day as a psychiatrist at New York's St. Dymphna's Hospital, lunch with his seemingly unambitious, 43-year-old son Lysander, and a visit to the grave of his second wife Isabelle, whose death he's still mourning. He has promised to help his current flame, Delilah, take care of an important task, and then he plans to end the day by killing himself.

Millard isn't sick or depressed or frail. But he knows all too well the indignities and infirmities that old age can bring, and he's determined to exit before his quality of life is impacted by any of them. He also doesn't want to be a burden to his children, nor does he want people to chronicle or lament his eventual decline.

He's trying to get everything in his life as settled as possible so his death doesn't cause a lot of disruption. He has divested himself of most of his patients and tied up as many loose ends as he can. But the course of life, even when you're planning to end your life, never runs smoothly—Millard encounters frustrated bureaucrats, power-hungry colleagues, depressed patients, a fiercely loyal employee, and a student looking for a recommendation. Oh, and there's a lynx on the loose at the hospital. Luckily, Millard's sly sense of humor helps him take everything in stride.

As Millard goes through the day, he realizes he won't leave this world without some regrets, but he tries to make things right where he can, so he can end his life feeling reasonably satisfied with how things will be after his death. And as he reminisces about his childhood, his marriages, and his career, he sees how much everything has changed, and he doesn't want to feel like a dinosaur.

This was a really interesting concept on which to build a book. Millard is a complex character—he definitely cares about his family and his patients but he's not above some mostly good-natured ribbing of his colleagues. Given the book's plot, this could have veered into either maudlin or treacly territory, and to Jacob Appel's credit it really didn't. You could see as the book unfolded that this was a man who was proud of his life and his accomplishments, but didn't want to linger too long.

Appel is a fantastic writer—he's written some fantastic short story collections I've absolutely devoured—Einstein's Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets. His writing is always characterized by a healthy balance of quirk and heart, and both are on display here. I just felt this book meandered a little too much—some of Millard's pranks and reminiscences went on a bit too long, and so many subplots, supporting characters, and odd situations were shoehorned into the book that I felt it distracted from the story at the book's core.

One other caveat, which may be a positive or a negative one for you: the book's marketing blurb mentions A Man Called Ove, and while Millard may have his cranky moments, I don't think he's quite the curmudgeon that Ove was. So don't go into this book expecting that, or don't steer away from this book because you feared that.

Millard Salter's Last Day isn't perfect, but it's tremendously thought-provoking and well-written, with an immensely vivid main character. I think it's a great book club selection, because it could be the source of some fascinating conversation. And as always, Appel demonstrates his talent as a storyteller.

NetGalley and Gallery Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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