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TBTS Reviews: You Lost Me There

October 6, 2010

Victor Aaron, an Alzheimer’s researcher and recently a widower, has settled into a not unpleasant routine: grueling lab work all day, poring through filtered memories of his wife and a stab at grieving through a halting attempt at a fling with a much younger woman at night.  Victor’s wife, Sara, was a would-be screenwriter who unexpectedly succeeded later in life and was on her way to being a new Nora Ephron.  Victor and Sara led a happy life, interrupted by a short – and in his mind, ultimately inconsequential – trial separation brought on by friction over her success, eclipsing the man who has long thought of himself as a brilliant researcher doing important work.  But then Victor discovers, among his wife’s books, a stack of fifty-four index cards containing her memories of episodes in their life, and discovers her memories to have been vexingly different.

On the surface, You Lost Me There is a straightforward grieving-and-loss novel.  Even with the wrinkle of Sara’s lost memories revealing more about Victor than he cared to know about himself, the story itself is fairly direct.  But Baldwin has higher ambitions than merely to tell the story of Victor’s grief and its resolution.  Throughout You Lost Me There, Baldwin meditates on the nature of memory and pits the idea of the biological brain against the insubstantial but inarguably real heart.  Victor is a devout scientist, one who firmly believes everything that goes on in the head to be traceable to a biological trigger in the brain.  His devotion has blinded him to the complexities of emotion, the shadings and variations of feelings, especially his own and those of his wife, but Victor thinks he gets it:

Decisions have multiple origins, neurologically.  If we only used our brain’s rational side, we’d analyze without stopping, dissect our options into ever smaller pieces, and follow out their logical options, step by step, until we were so distant from the original impulse that we’d forget why we began.  Without our emotional voices, without the gut, without sentimental gales and whatever mute instinct governed (or not so mute, considering the loudness of hunger, a sex drive’s roaring static), there’d be only dithering.

Baldwin is a competent stylist who has clearly put a lot of effort into understanding what he’s talking about.  When Victor talks about neurobiology, it manages to be interesting and authentic.  And when Victor is grappling with his failure to understand his wife, the book is at its strongest, matching the sincerity of Victor’s love for Sara against his decreasing ability to see who she is and what she wants.  The scenes, in the last third of the book, where Victor discovers the depth of his error and the burst of irrational behavior that follows are compelling and touching, and bring Victor – at long last – into what feels like humanity in full.

I wish I could say that Victor’s journey to understanding, culminating in a discovery of an and honest grief was a wondrous, compelling survey of the territory overlapped between the mind and the heart.  At times, it is.  There are plenty of honest, heart-stirring moments to be found in You Lost Me There. But at other times the basic story seems too easy: a man finds his late wife’s writing and comes to learn something terrible, surrounded by a mostly unimportant supporting cast there to add the impression of depth and color.  It is not difficult to imagine this story switched around a bit and sold as commercial fiction.  Maybe that was Baldwin’s intent; after all, Sara’s fortune comes from her ability to produce commercially successful if not all that deep scripts, planting the seed of serious Victor’s discontent with his marriage. Perhaps the pairing of a cerebral, complex character like Victor with a story like this, thin-boned but long on heart, is just another way Baldwin makes his point and illuminates the gap between heart and mind at a level I haven’t fully considered.  Perhaps I should give Baldwin the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps my reluctance to do so is not, at the last, all that rational.

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