Is love summoned from your brain or heart? Can love trigger new connections in your brain? (New Jersey, present-day): Sometimes an author’s endorsement sways you to pick up a novel you’d otherwise pass over. Such was the case with Graeme Simsion’s testimonial prominently placed on the updated cover of Sally Hepworth’s 2015 novel, The Things We Keep, out tomorrow in paperback. For when the author of two charming romance novels (The Rosie Project, continued in The Rosie Effect) about endearing professor Don Tillman’s social challenges (Asperger’s-like syndrome) views Hepworth’s love story of two significantly challenged characters diagnosed with early-onset dementia as appealing to “our common humanity, capacity for love, and sense of humor,” you take notice. Could it capture our hearts with hopefulness and tenderness rather than crush us with sadness? I had to find out. That it does so on such a disheartening subject is noteworthy.
A few years back, I read another novel depicting Alzheimer’s. Then my curiosity came from reading the author spent 10 years writing his debut and sold it for $1 million. The novel (We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas) renders the ravages of the disease on scientist Ed and his caregiving wife Eileen so realistically and graphically I found it too depressing; could barely finish it, let alone blog about it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. In fact, it was a bestseller with numerous accolades. What it does mean is what we read and like or dislike can shake us up when a story hits home too personally. For me it did. My mother had dementia caused by primary-progressive multiple sclerosis, which in its advanced stages mirrored scenes detailed in Thomas’ novel.
My mother’s dementia was rare – 5% – like the two types of younger-adult dementia afflicting Anna, 38, and Luke, 41, in The Things We Keep. Because of different ages and conditions, thankfully I didn’t recognize my mother much in this intriguing page-turner. The notion that two cognitively challenged people discover profound connectedness and love in an assistive-living facility is fantastical. That dementia, which “steals things – memories, speech, other abilities,” doesn’t steal your ability to love is as hopeful as it can get.
The title turns out to be more provocative than first thought. Initially, the things we keep seemed to answer yes to the author’s interesting question: “Can you love someone you don’t remember?” (Anna can’t even remember Luke’s name. She conjures him up by his distinguishing feature: Young Man.) But after watching the mind-boggling documentary, The Brain That Changes Itself, based on Dr. Norman Doidge’s book, on the pioneering work in brain science called “neuroplasticity,” the title took on a far-reaching interpretation. Again, it answered yes to another of the novel’s probing questions: Is “love like a river – it wants to flow off. If one path is blocked, it simply finds another”?
Reading those lines felt entirely fictional, a way of lending credence to what happens to Anna, more so than Luke. (Luke’s type of dementia, frontotemporal, attacks speech first). Even with severe memory loss, Anna continues to respond to him emotionally, passionately.
The documentary’s assertion spins the title on its head. Supported by amazing real life stories, it demonstrates (contrary to 400 years of thinking) that our brains are not “hard-wired” but “plastic” – “changing all the time.” Unused areas of the brain can be opened up – “unmasking dormant pathways” – echoing the novelist’s supposition! Thus, Anna’s potent love for Luke can be seen as awakening sleeping regions of her brain when other parts are impaired. The title could mean what we keep in the brain is far greater than what we know, until something miraculous happens.
Was the author aware she dreamed up a story at the cutting-edge of neurological science?
Luke is less known to us since much of the novel is told through Anna’s voice. Yet, all we really need to know is he possesses a charming sense of self, kindness, sensitivity, and praiseful protectiveness of Anna. (Oh, and he’s “sexy”!) He is her reason to live.
“Love is a continuous state,” Don Tillman says. Is it? For whenever Anna experiences Luke it’s all newness and freshness – no continuous memories. What is continuous is instinctive feelings regardless of cognitive function. The novel continually explores our capacity to love and where these powerful emotions flow from.
To appreciate the rapid deterioration of Anna’s dementia, the novel is structured by time and voice. It opens in Anna’s voice “fifteen months ago” when she looks and sounds like a “normal, forgetful person”; then switches to the present in a second female voice, Eve’s, who allows us to compare before versus now; then reverts back to an advancing past: 14 months ago, 13 months ago, and so on until 3 months ago. Like the disease, the novel feels like a ticking clock.
The second female voice, Eve’s, enters when she’s hired as cook for the small, private facility Anna and Luke are living at, Rosalind House. Anna was a paramedic. That brave job plays out in her gutsy behavior to voluntarily move into the home after an incident occurs at her twin brother Jack’s house, where he’s been living since her diagnosis at age 31.
Responsibility for Anna’s care fell to Jack. Their mother passed away from the same disease (which means Anna believes she knows her dim future) and their father deserted twenty years ago when Mom was diagnosed (ugh!). Jack adores Anna, is fervently well-intentioned. But as the story of Anna’s and Luke’s love blossoms, you’ll see he’s painfully misguided.
A third female voice infrequently pops in: Eve’s perceptive, 7-year-old daughter, Clementine. It’s a tricky thing writing believably in a young voice. In an author interview at the back of the book, Hepworth says she likes writing multi-generational stories. (She also tells us the inspiration for the novel.) It helps to know this, since Clem’s prose sounded too grown-up, though she’s had to grow up quickly due to the difficult circumstances that brought her mother to Rosalind House.
Thirteen residents are cared for at Rosalind House. Anna also refers to them by their obvious features, giving us short-handed glimpses of them in the earlier days of her disease when she’s lucid, observant, frank, and witty. A resident stand-out is Baldy. That’s Bert, a gruff widower still talking to his wife Myrna he lost 5o years ago. Alzheimer’s is characterized by moments of clarity, so sometimes he understands Myrna’s gone. It’s his way of keeping her memory alive. Other characters bear nicknames and sympathetic/not-so-sympathetic stories like Southern Lady, Angus the gardener, and Eric, the disagreeable manager.
Bert’s the resident most brightened by “young lady” Clem, and she with him. Their relationship is one example of how the novel shows us how two vastly differing people can benefit from one another.
Another example is Eve’s deepening friendship and insight into Anna’s lifeline-need for Luke. Her benevolence and the bold steps she takes to help Anna occur most importantly at night when Anna’s restless, can’t sleep, roams. “Night-restlessness,” agitation, and confusion are other disease symptoms. These (and sadly more) unfold over the timeline, which seems to parallel the progressive stages of the disease: early, middle, and late.
The novel is a departure for me as the prose is not as affecting as the poignancy of the messaging and the implications the words convey. The novel screams Live In The Moment. “Life is too short” is a phrase that may sound cliché and not earth-shattering, but the message is. A message common to all. That ultimately maybe all that matters is “right now.”
I hope readers will watch the brain documentary. Presuming the brain can stretch/adapt, then the possibilities put forth in The Things We Keep are awe-inspiring. Horizons gifting us all hope.