Little Black Lies: Sandra Block

I read out loud to them: ” ‘patient voices regret over her past actions. States she would like to visit Children’s Hospital, or become a Big Sister to help other children. Her dream is to become an elementary school teacher or social worker to help troubled kids, as she feels she was not helped.’ Is that not unbelievable? She’s acting like Mother Theresa, and he’s falling for it, hook, line, and sinker.”

Little Black Lies a first novel from neurologist Sandra Block introduces damaged psychiatry intern, Zoe Goldman. For regular readers of this blog, you already know that I have a fascination with books set in asylums/mental hospitals and plots either written by or featuring psychiatrists/therapists. Since Little Black Lies focuses on psychiatry resident Dr. Zoe Goldman who is assigned a patient newly transferred to her care, I was, naturally intrigued. Plus .. book two featuring Zoe Goldman : The Girl Without a Name has an ETA of 9/15 … sign me up.

little black liesThe plot takes place over just a few months, but reaches back into the shadowy past of the protagonist, damaged Zoe Goldman. Zoe who’s in the middle of a long-distance relationship with a Frenchman, works in the psychiatric ward of a hospital where she sees and treats many “frequent flyers:” those with the “usual circuit: emergency room, psych ward, rehab, streets, and repeat. A cycle destined to continue until interrupted by jail, death, or less likely, sobriety.”

The book begins with daily rounds and Zoe’s latest assignment, a ‘new’ patient– 36-year old, Sofia Vallano who’s been institutionalized since age 14 for the murder of her mother. After the closure of another hospital, Sofia has been transferred for “further treatment and evaluation,” and of course the underlying question is: can Sofia be released into society or does she still represent a danger to others? Compared to the other patients in the psych ward, Sofia seems much more controlled. There are no violent outbursts, she is on no medication, and, rather conveniently, she claims to remember absolutely nothing about the death of her mother.

And there is Sofia Vallano, perched on the bed, reading a magazine. I’m not sure what I expected. Some baleful creature with blood dripping from her eyeteeth maybe. But this is not what I see. Sofia Vallano is a stunning mix of colors: shiny black hair, royal blue eyes, and opera red lips. Something like Elizabeth Taylor in her middle years, curvaceous and unapologetically sexual. They say the devil comes well dressed.

Zoe juggles a number of personal problems with the demands of her professional life. While she performs well at work (in spite of constant friction from her boss) she really is a bit of a mess and takes three different medications: Adderall “So I keep my mouth shut most of the time,” Lexapro “So I don’t jump off the Peace Bridge,” and Xanax “So I can sleep.” Plus she’s in therapy. Zoe used to suffer from horrendous nightmares, and when those nightmares return, she begins to question her past. While holes rapidly develop in the constructed history of her childhood, Zoe hits a stumbling block when she tries to question her adoptive mother who now suffers from dementia.

The fragility of memory is a central theme of the book. On one hand there’s “model patient,” Sofia, who murdered her mother as a teenager, and now under Zoe’s supervision, she conveniently claims to remember a vital component to the crime. With Sofia’s imminent release on the table, Zoe isn’t buying Sofia’s sudden surge of memory or her professed desire to turn her life around. While trying to get to the bottom of Sofia’s story, in a parallel quest for the truth, whatever that truth may be, Zoe tries to uncover details about her own past–initially through therapy and then through some good, old fashioned detective work.

While I guessed the book’s central secret, this was an entertaining read that explores the ephemeral nature of memory. So much of our early memories become a construct for our adult selves, but what happens when that construction is fabricated? While Little Black Lies is an eminently readable book, complex therapy options including hypnosis, day residue and dream rehearsal enter the plot. Interesting secondary characters are included in Zoe’s support network: an adoptive brother and two workmates: idiom obsessed Thai Dr A. and Chinese-American Jason (the dialogue between Zoe and her fellow doctors is energetic and feels authentic) . If this is indeed the first in a new series, then it’s a good start. It’s going to be intriguing to see where the author takes her main character. Will she remain focused on hospitalized patients or will she branch out into her own practice? The subject matter offers a wide range of possibilities, and for therapy junkies (like me) Sandra Block’s Zoe Goldman promises an interesting new series.

Review copy


Filed under Block Sandra, Fiction

30 responses to “Little Black Lies: Sandra Block

  1. I don’t think this book is for me, but I like what you say about the ephemeral nature of memories and how our early years can shape our characters. It sounds like a promising new series for you.

  2. I understand your interest in such themes, it is a fascinating subject.

    The fact that this book was written by a professional in the field gives it a little credence for me.

    Childhood memories and experiences are indeed as important as you say. I wonder just how many of them are constructed or at least distorted in all of us.

  3. I’m a sucker of psychiatrist/psychkoogist characters as well. I do hope she branches out in the next books. It would be too narrow for me if, every book was set in a hospital environment.

  4. Our mate Knausgaard says “Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful but not in any hostile or malicious way; on the contrary it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied.” I think he’s on the money.

  5. That’s probably not for me but it sounds like a good start for a series.

  6. Did you read those crime novels set in early 20th Century Vienna featuring an early psychotherapist as the detective?

    I’m failing to progress the series I already have, so I can’t fit any more in. Glad to hear you liked it enough that you’ll read the second though. I always think that’s the real test,

  7. I quite like the sound of this (you play havoc with my TBR list Guy) but is it a sort of psychological/mystery-type book? If so I’m up for it! Yep remember thinking the Frank Tallow ones sounded good. Got to stop visiting this site; I come away with about 4 book titles every time! I’m definitely leaving now…!

    • Yes it is a psychological mystery. The main character ends up doing a lot of detective work, but there’s a major component of the psychological here.

      • Great, I’ll have that! Had a nosy round the Kindle site and no sign of it here, yet, or a “pre-order” button, so I don’t know, maybe it’s only going to be available in hard copy?? Surely not! I don’t mind, but Kindle copies are generally cheaper!

        • You can change your country setting on the kindle. It’s designed as a feature for those who travel.

          • Interesting – and it doesn’t have any kind of GPS thingy that tells them where I am?! (Para or what?) I’ve been reading about this book My Sunshine Away on US blogs, sounds great, comparisons to Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, Southern Gothic, just my thing. But the cheapest internet site from which to buy the book said they could ship it to the UK “‘FROM’ ‘ONLY’ $55” – it isn’t out here for 215 days, irritatingly! So that’d be a way round getting it, too. Thanks, Guy, I’d never even have thought of that; really handy to know!

            • I’ve never personally tried it as I don’t travel abroad (and that’s how people usually learn about the feature), but I know people who do, and they change the settings.

              Have you tried ABE books or alibris?

              • No, but I’ll investigate them. Kindle seems a good option, if that’d work, because then there’s no delivery charge, and they’re generally, though not always, cheaper than a “real book”! I never go anywhere either, now, and even if I did I’d probably just read what I had on my Kindle already.

  8. TALLIS! Bloody auto correct, gotta watch it like a hawk!

  9. Thank you for taking the time to read my book and writing such a thoughtful review…I really appreciate it!

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