Piece of Mind by Michelle Adelman
W. W. Norton 320 pp. $25.95
By Shalene Gupta
As the doctors would tell it, twenty-seven year old Lucy’s “executive function is severely impaired due to frontal lobe injury.” As Lucy would tell it, she was hit by a truck when she was three, and that means can’t do math, can’t drive, and can’t use a microwave without an explosion. What Lucy can do is tell you everything there is to know about coffee and polar bears and draw whimsical pictures of animals. But when life forces Lucy out of her childhood home and into the wilderness of New York City, she is forced to confront what exactly she can and can’t do.
On the surface Piece of Mind, (Lucy is inspired by Adelman’s sister), is about navigating life with a disability. However, underneath that is a story about losing things great and small. Unable to stay organized, Lucy loses papers, clothes, and medicine. Fittingly, her life is the story of greater losses: lost potential, loss of family and friends, and finally, losing the fears that hold you back. Adelman deserves props for transforming a story about loss into a delightful page-turner packed full of warmth, humor, and bubbling, sparkling joy.
While Adelman’s pacing and plot are faultless, she’s not entirely successful with the first-person perspective. (Admittedly it’s tricky when the narrator has a mental disability). Lucy vacillates between pure Lucy and a talented writer describing what it might be like to have a brain injury. At times it’s difficult to grasp the difference between Lucy’s limitations due to her brain injury and her self-imposed limitations due to being told she has a brain injury. If Lucy can’t remember to wear mitts when using the oven, is it reasonable to expect her to be able to ride the subway alone? Unclear. Adelman may be trying to make a greater point here about disabilities in general, but she does the reader no favors by making them struggle to anchor themselves in Lucy’s world. Yet despite this, Lucy remains irresistibly funny, deeply sensitive, and utterly loveable.
Lucy sparkles on every page, and if she sparkles a little too clearly, very few readers will complain.
Shalene Gupta is a writer based in Boston. A former Fortune reporter, she is currently working on a novel.