“I was brain injured before it was trendy.”
That’s the arresting first sentence of “Piece of Mind,” title of Michelle Adelman’s debut novel and an apt description of the way Lucy – its 27-year-old narrator – sees herself.
After being hit by a truck when she was 3, Lucy lost what she describes as her “executive functions,” including those that “relate to organizing, prioritizing, reasoning, disciplining, goal setting, time managing, decision making, and impulse control.”
“When I pictured my brain,” she tells us, “I saw a pinball machine lit up with pockets of potential; if you hit certain levers in particular spots, you could unlock special doors and this flood of creativity, or conversation, or crying might pour out. The rest of the board was filled with dead zones.”
It’s an unwittingly accurate description of Adelman’s book, which meanders as much as Lucy herself, frequently lighting up with good writing and astute observation, while simultaneously pocked with flat stretches in which Lucy’s unique voice gets held hostage by the plot.
Lucy’s “flood of creativity” involves “reading, writing and drawing objects,” with all three activities reaching their acme when they involve animals. Not only does she know a ton about them, but she can sense things within them that many ostensibly more rational people miss.
Hence her cat has the “soul of a poet.” A penguin at the zoo is a lonely outsider trying to fit in. Sketching the zoo’s beloved polar bear – 27, just like Lucy – “it was as if I began flowing into his head, he into mine.”
The text is sprinkled with Lucy’s renderings of such animals. Actually drawn by Adelman’s older sister – who herself suffered a brain injury when she was a child – they really do suggest the sort of homespun, give-and-take relations between equals that Lucy describes.
Lucy’s interactions with humans prove harder, particularly after her father dies, joining the mother Lucy lost at 14. Since she can’t entirely care for herself, Lucy moves in with Nate, the 21-year-old brother who occupies a tiny apartment in New York City.
“Piece of Mind” is no “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” but there’s some fine passages on the unique bond between siblings, including one culminating in the little brother who’d once looked up to Lucy realizing he can now do things his sister cannot. A young Nate has just seen his uncoordinated teenaged sis fall down the last three steps at home:
“I noticed something different in his eyes – concern, sure, but also distance. Like he knew he would never do something like that himself, like he knew he’d probably have to help me again. Like he realized in that moment how different we were.”
For all that, the overwhelmed Nate will himself stumble badly before this novel concludes, giving Lucy the chance to help him as he’d often helped her.
She can do so in part because of encounters with conveniently appearing characters – one of Nate’s friends, an old woman, and the ghost of Lucy’s long-dead mother – whose primary purpose entails serving up inspirational slogans pulling Lucy through her darkest hours, allowing her to trump her frequently depressed and defeatist read on the world and herself.
Thankfully, Adelman’s own read on Lucy is too smart, honest and funny to flatten her protagonist’s irrepressibly quirky and often unpredictable voice for long – any more than the man Lucy dates in an improbable courtship can shape her to fit his own story.
Nobody puts Lucy in a corner, and the more one watches her dance the more one wants to take the floor and join her. But Lucy – lacking fine motor skills and prone to shuffle and stumble – stubbornly moves to her own beat. When Adelman tries to smooth and straighten, one can count on Lucy to respond by giving her – and us – a piece of her own unforgettable mind.
‘Piece of Mind: A Novel’
By Michelle Adelman
304 pages, $25.95