The Other Side of You

Salley Vickers’s The Other Side of You is a lovely, smart, beautiful book. I didn’t fall in love with it, as I thought I might, but that doesn’t keep me from seeing how others might love it and that it has an awful lot to recommend it. I suppose what this tells me that being lovely, smart, and beautiful isn’t enough when it comes to fiction; there also has to be some spark or sense of identification (and not of the easy “I identify with the characters” sort) that a person feels for a book to truly fall in love with it.

It tells the story of David McBride, a psychiatrist, who is treating a particularly challenging patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, who has tried and failed to commit suicide and who is now resistant to David’s attempts to get her to talk. In the book’s early pages, we learn about David’s life at the same time that we read about his first sessions with Elizabeth. David himself suffered a trauma as a young child: he witnessed his brother’s death as the brother tried to lead him across the street and was hit by a lorry. The narrative is written in the first person from David’s perspective, and David is open from the very beginning about how this tragedy still haunts him, many years later. He has done his best to recover from it, but he knows that this is the sort of event one doesn’t really ever get over.

Eventually Elizabeth does open up and begin to tell her story, which David retells to the reader in a long passages that recreate the scenes Elizabeth lived through. At this point something magical begins to happen to David. He finds himself so profoundly moved by Elizabeth’s story that he begins to think again about his own past and his own wounds, and he begins to move beyond the role of a psychiatrist to relate to Elizabeth as a friend.

One of the things I particularly liked about this book is the way it questions the roles of analyst and patient, particularly the power dynamic that usually exists between the two, with the patient as the needy one and the analyst as the source of healing and guidance. David reveals to us — and eventually to Elizabeth — just how vulnerable and broken he is and how in need of help he is himself. During long conversations in which they both tell their stories, he breaks some of the rules designed to keep boundaries up between doctor and patient and shows as he does so just how complex doctor/patient relationships really are and how mysterious the healing process can be. The dynamic between living, breathing human beings can’t really be contained by professional rules.

Vickers weaves into her story a contemplation of the way art can shape one’s life. Art is what begins the deepening of Elizabeth and David’s friendship: Elizabeth had fallen in love with a man who studied Caravaggio, an artist who has been meaningful in David’s life as well, and it’s David’s mention of Caravaggio that gets Elizabeth to talk in the first place. So bound up in this exploration of love and loss there is also a role for art and beauty, for the way art can express what seems impossible to put into words and the way it can become an inextricable part of the bonds that hold people together.

I’m almost writing myself into liking this book more than I really did. The truth is that I admired all this in a detached kind of way. Reading the book was an intellectual exercise in seeing how Vickers brought her ideas together, rather than an experience of thinking and feeling all at once. I never came to care about the characters all that much, except as ways to explore ideas. I don’t need to identify with characters in the sense of liking them or being able to imagine knowing them in my own life, but I do want to feel that they are alive, that there is some spark there that makes them seem real.

I’m genuinely sorry about this one, because all the elements are there that might make me fall in love with it. But, alas, even when we want to fall in love, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

8 responses to “The Other Side of You

  1. I smiled when I read, “I’m almost writing myself into liking this book more than I really did.” I’ve often found myself doing that when I come to write about a book I wasn’t sure that I liked or not. And as I commented before I wasn’t sure about this one.

    I think you’ve pinpointed my problem with it – the characters didn’t come to life. I got bored part way through – left it a while, always a sign that a book isn’t working for me, and then went back to finish it. But I wondered if my own frame of mind at the time was affecting my reading so I may have another look at it some day.

    It is a shame because I’ve particularly enjoyed other books by Salley Vickers, such as Mr Golightly’s Holiday and Miss Garnet’s Angel.

  2. Too bad you didn’t like the book all that much. Isn’t it so very disappointing when that happens? Good thing it doesn’t occur with much frequency!

  3. Ah, I’m sorry you didn’t fall in love with this one. I do like the sound of it and so I’ll probably add it to my list for one of these days. I did enjoy one of Vickers’ books so we’ll see…

  4. As you know, I did love it. But I know you like your books dark, and whilst there was a lot of suffering in this one, Vickers holds it at arm’s length so the reader can look at it, rather than plunging us head first into it. Now, I really appreciated that, but if it’s the experience of the darkness that moves you, then I can see why the book might leave you untouched.

  5. Detached or “at arm’s length” as litlove put it. I had much the same reaction that you did. And am not sure why. Barry’s The Secret Scripture had an oddly detached relationship between patient and therapist but I loved that, even with the troublesome ending.

    While I am here, you are a winner in my Faber & Faber poetry giveaway. Forward me your shipping address?

  6. I usually have to become emotionally engaged to really like a book–if I stay detached, that usually kills it for me. But it does sound interesting on some levels. Thanks for the review!

  7. BooksPlease — I’m very glad you enjoyed other books by Vickers, because then maybe I will like them too. I found myself a bit bored as well; the ideas stayed interesting, but the story didn’t. Sometimes I think it can take a good long while to figure out if I really like something or not.

    Stefanie — well, I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I thought I would enjoy it more. Perhaps my expectations were too high? Anyway, it is a good thing it doesn’t happen all the time.

    Iliana — do add it to your list, especially if you like one of her other books. I can definitely see how other people would love the book, even if I didn’t necessarily.

    Litlove — well, that makes a whole lot of sense. And I definitely see how you and other readers would love this book — it is lovable, even if it’s not for me! I think you’re right about the arm’s length because I did feel a sense of detachment that wasn’t working for me.

    Frances — I’m so thrilled to have won that book of poems! Yay! And it’s very interesting to me that you felt the same way about Vickers. It IS hard to pinpoint, isn’t it?

    Gentle Reader — I agree, and it’s quite a puzzle to figure out what causes me or anyone to become engaged in a book. But however the process works, it’s essential.

  8. I remember when Litlove wrote about this book and have looked at Salley Vickers work but haven’t gotten around to reading any of it. I think it’s entirely possible to appreciate what an author is doing in a novel, but still not be moved to fall in love with the story. It sounds like a good reading experience nonetheless!

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