I sometimes think about myself in my mid-twenties and how naive I was about many things. While I’ve experienced unpleasant/embarassing/painful things in life, and learned hard lessons, all of it has made me who I am and led to the beautiful family I have today. I have very few regrets about things I’ve done in the past. But what if I woke up one day to a life that wasn’t so idyllic and no sense of how it got that way?
In the first chapter of What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (Berkley Books, 16.00 USD), its main character, Alice, experiences some strange dream sequences and wakes up surrounded by paramedics. Apparently, she has fainted at the gym (she goes to the gym?!) and bumped her head. She tells the paramedics that she’s pregnant. They tell her not to worry. They ask how old she is; she replies that she’s 29. A friend with her at the gym tells her she just got an invitation to Alice’s 40th birthday party.
Alice has forgotten the last 10 years of her life. She isn’t pregnant; the baby she remembers being pregnant with is now 10 years old, and she has two other children as well. The husband she adores does not live with her anymore, and they are in the middle of a divorce settlement; apparently, she is even dating someone else. She is many pounds thinner and far more fit than she remembers. She and her sister have drifted apart, she is in charge of practically every event at her children’s school that requires parent volunteers, and someone named Gina was apparently very important but isn’t anymore, for unknown reasons that no one wants to discuss with her.
I read this book for the book club I recently joined (and it’s awesome to be part of a book club again – that’s something I’ve missed immensely since we moved), but because it deals with amnesia, I’m counting it toward the “Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness” part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge for 2016. It’s a two-fer!
Although she quickly accepts that it is 2008, not 1998 (she does make a point to ask about Y2K), everything from Alice’s current life seems either ridiculous or frivolous. How can she be divorcing her husband? Why does she pay a personal trainer $150 a session to tell her how to work out? Why are her children involved in so many activities (several of which they clearly hate)? Her memories are gone, but her muscle memory remains; she can type in passwords for accounts she’s completely unfamiliar with, running (which she has no memory of ever enjoying) is oddly soothing, and she somehow seems to be social at parties – despite being painfully shy all her life. The author does an outstanding job of making Alice’s amnesia believable, and as a result, the reader feels as confused as Alice does.
Even as Alice feels her life has somehow taken a wrong turn in the last 10 years and is desperately trying to sort out what happened, the lives of her sister, mother, and adoptive grandmother are moving along, for better or worse. The subplots involving these three characters are nearly as interesting as Alice’s. Her sister, Elisabeth, and mother, Barb, have both married surprising men, and Elisabeth is undergoing fertility treatments, which are slowly making her lose her mind. Alice’s adoptive grandmother, Frannie, is reluctantly being courted by an older gentleman in her retirement community. Part of the narrative is told through Elisabeth’s journal entries for her psychiatrist (whom she sees because of the grief of infertility), and part of it is told through Frannie’s letters to her former fiance. These epistolary entries provide a nice balance with the third-person narration that stays very close to Alice and therefore seems a tad unreliable, since Alice spends several pages convinced that it’s 1998, not 2008.
Losing ten years of memories gives Alice the rare gift of perspective on all of her relationships. It seems, to her and her entire family, that Alice has become a bit of a bitch. As some of her memories begin to return, it’s clear that things are far more complicated than just Alice changing for the worse, but with ten-year-old (and older) memories suddenly fresh in her mind and untarnished by the memories she’s forgotten, Alice becomes newly aware of what matters to her and fiercely determined to get it back.
Her impending divorce from her husband, Nick, is understandably Alice’s greatest point of confusion and grief. Although he sets aside his bristly attitude toward her once it’s clear she doesn’t know why they’re divorcing, he assures her that once she does get her memories back, she’ll still want a divorce. They even bet $20 on it.
I became incredibly invested in all the characters, but while I obviously wanted Nick and Alice to get back together, the author did not villainize Alice’s boyfriend or the mysterious Gina, even though Alice’s reaction to both of them was suspicion and a certain amount of contempt upon first learning of their existence – after all, both of them were somehow involved with the fact that she and her husband were not together anymore. Yet, neither one was actually a negative force in Alice’s life. It would have been a cop-out for the author to simply throw a couple of bad apples into Alice’s life to force her from Nick, and then for Alice to realize, with the benefit of losing ten years of memories, that she doesn’t want or need either of them. This is not the case here, and the complexity of her current situation, and the mystery of how she got there, made this book hard to put down.