Helen Moran is in her shared studio apartment in Manhattan accepting delivery of her roommate’s new IKEA sofa when she gets the call telling her that her brother is dead. She packs a few things and flies home to Milwaukee to try to make sense of his suicide. “It’s just the three of us now,” her parents say, as they each try to interpret the shifting constellation of their relationship.
Helen is difficult to be around, trapped inside her own mind, alternately highly empathetic and completely clueless about other people’s perspectives, but I like her. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with her, but I admire that she’s found a way to (mostly) get by in her world.
Being inside Helen’s head is similar to being inside Eleanor Oliphant’s head. Each has her own logic and mechanisms to cope with reality, and each is challenged to realign and reevaluate when reality no longer lines up with her understanding of it. But I like Helen more than I like Eleanor. There’s no miraculous recovery for Helen, no key to unlock her difficulties with life and free her from herself. She doesn’t find sanity and equanimity after three visits to a therapist. Helen’s adjustment to her world is more nuanced, more flawed, and more realistic than Eleanor’s. Her demons are still there, she just finds a new perspective from which to confront them.
This novel feels like a truthful portrayal of the experience of living with mental illness, including psychosis, which continues to be something of a third rail in discussions around mental illness even as it’s becoming more acceptable (bordering on trendy) to be open about depression and anxiety. Even aside from issues of mental illness, this novel illustrates well the ways in which we each live within our own heads and according to our own logical framework and how difficult it is to reach across the divide between our reality and someone else’s.
One of my favorite quotes from the novel, albeit one that doesn’t have much bearing on the plot, is this one about Helen’s experience living in New York City:
“Someone will pay me one day to divulge how I lived so frugally, elegantly, and sanely in that glittering, amorally rich, and enormous hellhole.”
Side note: Somehow, I’m reading three books at the same time that deal with adoption and mental illness: a memoir (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson), a middle-grade novel (Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford), and this novel. It’s an odd coincidence, but one that I’m enjoying.