Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rosecrans Baldwin writes a novel about the disservices of memory.

This novel, set in coastal Maine among medical researchers, intrigued me for many reasons. It is an impressive debut.

You Lost Me There

In Rosecrans Baldwin’s debut novel, a research scientist who studies Alzheimer’s disease is forced to confront the faultiness of his own memory of his beloved wife and their life together. You Lost Me There (296 pages, Riverhead Books, $25.95) explores the obsessive routines of a research scientist in his late fifties, Dr. Victor Aaron. As he deals with a difficult staff and tries to put together new grant proposals, Victor struggles with memories of his wife Sara, who was killed sometime before in an automobile accident on the isolated Maine island where they lived together. The Soberg Institute is located there, on Mount Desert Island, named for the man who first gave the bequest that made research on the elderly even possible.

Victor had come to the institute, with Sara, after a distinguished career at Harvard, NYU, and elsewhere. With his assistant Lucy, Victor has made real inroads to explain how Alzheimer’s actually attacks the brain. Sara was happy to accompany Victor to Mount Desert Island because she spent much of her childhood there.

In the day to day life we witness, Victor is compulsive and overbearing in off-putting ways. He works long hours, swims for exercise, and occasionally spends intimate time with another researcher, a graduate student called Regina. She is something of a femme fatale, and she has been intrigued by this dapper and distracted older gentleman. As she gets to know him, however, she is frightened at how little he is able to commit to their relationship.

It is no wonder that Victor is distracted. He thinks all the time about his dead wife, and, even worse, he has discovered a sheaf of index cards on which she had written about key moments in their relationship for a marriage counselor that she had begun to see before her death. It turns out that Sara was a desperately unhappy woman, and she was unhappy especially because of the way she was treated by her husband.

What he saw as his quiet and helpful support as she tried to put together some kind of career as a writer, she saw as abandonment—would he ever be home from the lab?—and various forms of torment while he thought he'd actually tried to help her and give her his full attention. Sara, who comes vividly alive in her little index card insertions, is struggling to be herself, and Victor, as distant and overbearing as he is, has only ever hindered her progress. Moreover, she feels, when she finally had her big success, he undermined it all by treating it as a fluke and nothing very special.

Victor, who is still in the habit of staying at the lab till after midnight and slipping out to swim just as the sun comes up, sees things very differently. He cannot imagine that Sara took things the ways she did. In some ways, he wonders whether she is even remembering things correctly. But the more he wonders about it, the more he thinks that maybe it is his memory that is all screwed up. This of course brings on a moment of crisis for this research scientist who studies memory; and when it comes, it isn’t pretty.

Rosecrans Baldwin has written about this middle-aged crisis well, and he has depicted the failure of marriage with aplomb. This is a strong start for a novelist, and I look forward to whatever he takes on next.

Rosecrans Baldwin

You Lost Me There available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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