Tag Archives: mental hospital

Bye Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes

I gave up on the film version of Baise-Moi based on the book from French author Virginie Despentes, but that didn’t stop me from trying, and loving the film  Les Jolies Choses, based on yet another (sadly, untranslated) book from the author.  It was the latter film I thought of as I read Bye Bye Blondie, the story of a tangled relationship floating on a sea of fame and affluence.

The book begins with a woman in her late 30s, Gloria, whose real name is Stéphanie, washed up, living on benefits in the town of Nancy. Gloria could be called local colour at the bar where she hangs out, drinking, and it’s to this bar she gravitates after yet another violent break-up. This time it’s with her now ex-boyfriend, Lucas, and in the aftermath of the fight, she realizes that “she could have killed him. It came that close: a centimeter, a second! She diced with tragedy. He’d have had to be just that bit less quick, agile, or strong than her.”

Bye Bye Blondie

Gloria’s whole life gravitates around the bar where she’s well known. One of her few remaining friends is Michel who is smitten with a woman,
“a château bottled bitch,” named Vanessa, and to Gloria’s dismay, this relationship may be serious. Gloria is very intolerant of other people–especially women, and yet she always expects others to accept her aggressive, destructive behaviour.

Back in the bar, she looks around for L’Est Républicain, the local paper, and sees it clutched in the pink false fingernails of the woman sitting at the bar. Classic slut. Another regular. Always lots of makeup, come-hither eyes. She’s fat, dark-haired, no great looker, but not letting on she knows that.

Of course with a character like Gloria, you have to ask where things went wrong. How did she get to this point, “addicted to pointless anger,” and the first half of the book explores those questions with the result it’s obvious that middle-aged Gloria is not in a slump, no, she hasn’t moved beyond her adolescence. She’s a trainwreck, but she’s at the age that her actions can still impress those younger than her. Since her teenage years, obessive-compulsive Gloria has enjoyed throwing fits. To her they are an effective tool:

What she doesn’t tell him is how much of a kick she gets these days out of being aggressive. How much she loves the moment when everything tips over, when the other person is caught off balance and you have to go on, attacking, screaming, and seeing his fear. That’s the moment she likes. The pleasure she gets from it is dirty, degrading, filling her with shame-a filthy and superpowerful pleasure.

Never really able to settle on her own identity, in the 80s, she latched onto the Punk rock scene. But that’s not mentioning her stay at a mental hospital where she met the love of her life, Eric, a young man from a wealthy home, who, in the years following his break-up with Gloria, has become a successful television personality.

Blurbs about the book mention the inherent violence in heterosexual relationships, and while that’s not an arguable point when discussing this author’s work, other pertinent themes include the issues of class differences, status, and fame. The very things that attract us to someone in the first place are quite often the same things that guarantee doom.

I loved Gloria; I loved her ability to self destruct and to rise from the ashes. She’s funny, intelligent, and yet as her own worst enemy, she continually launches herself into a never-ending cycle of aggression. To Eric, locked into the world of the rich and famous, Gloria is a breath of fresh air, so he takes her to Paris and is “delighted to see the way she gets up people’s noses.” Gloria gets used to living in Eric’s world, and the question is: how long can she behave before creating another “nuclear disaster?”

There are many memorable scenes to carry away from this book. In one scene, Gloria is questioned by an “ancient” male psychiatrist who dislikes Gloria’s dyed red hair. He decides she’s “refusing to be a woman,” and locks her up.

And in another scene she’s shopping in Paris with Eric.

She waits in front of the luxury delicatessen, Fauchon’s, smoking a cigarette. She looks people up and down as they go in, actively detesting them. Elderly dyed-blondes, all twig-slim with ridiculous little dogs, hordes of Japanese women, young anorexic girls with strained faces, old ladies with white hair and Hermès scarves. The clichés aren’t misleading: rich people are just like you’d imagine them, weird, ugly and pleased with themselves. They can spot each other at a glance. Even when one of them dresses down, they keep something about them that says to their equals, “I’m one of us.”

She waits for him opposite Colette’s smoking another cigarette.

“Come in with me, don’t be silly.”

“I tell you it would give me conniptions.”

“You look like a horse stamping its foot outside. You’re scaring everyone.”

She wants to run between the aisles waving her hands in the air and screaming, pushing people over into the displays. Breaking all the glass, the mirrors, the windows. Punching the old hags in the face, kicking the salesgirls, jumping up and down on the fashion victims, smashing the balls of the bouncers.”

But my favourite scene has to be Gloria, stuck in long line at the post office. There’s annoying children, a demented old lady in a dressing gown, and a disgruntled customer:

A woman complains that there’s always a line at the post office. Gloria never at a loss for something to say, looks her up and down and retorts: “perhaps that’s because you only come here at busy times, you silly bitch.”

Gloria may be a trainwreck but she’s a disinhibited one, and it’s hard to disagree with some of her outspokenness, and while Gloria seems hell-bent on destroying conventional society and all of her relationships at the cost of her own comfort, there’s a tiny voice off on the sidelines that whispers we hope she can change her cycle of self-destructiveness but still remain true to herself.

We don’t get too close to the secondary characters in Gloria’s life, nonetheless there’s plenty to entertain here–the pub customers, life at the mental hospital, and parties full of the unhappy wives of rich, “repulsive pigs.” I would love to see the film version…

Translated by Siân Reynolds

Review copy.

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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

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Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum

“All my life I have imagined that my morals were high, that I was decent and honest and truthful. But what happened to my morals when I was tested?”

I came across a review of Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum at Reading Matters. I’d heard of the book before, and while I’m not that thrilled with Scandinavian crime novels, Kim’s review made me rethink my initial dismissal. Bad Intentions is one in a series of Inspector Sejer mysteries. This is the first I’ve read, but that didn’t seem to matter. Some reviews I read complained about the lack of Inspector Sejer’s presence in the novel, and it’s true that he isn’t around a great deal until closer to the end of the book. This is somewhat unusual for a series novel as readers frequently return to the next novel in order to hang out with a favourite fictional character. The lack of Inspector Sejer’s appearances did not trouble me as I am new to the series, and the story of Bad Intentions is engrossing. Even though there’s not much about Sejer’s personal life here, there’s enough info about his psychology to make him interesting. This is a man who dislikes loose ends:

He liked interrogating people, he liked spotting the lie when it came. A lie had its own pitch, and over many years he had learned to recognise it. He liked the moment when the confession finally spilled out, when all the cards were on the table and the course of events could be mapped out and filed.

The story begins on Friday the 13th of September (not a good sign) with three young men who’ve arrived at an isolated lakeside cabin: Axel is a 25-year-old advertising executive who drives a Mercedes, Philip is a passive druggie who barely manages to hold a menial job at a hospital, and finally there’s Jon, a frail young man with a number of health problems. Jon is currently a resident at a local mental hospital, and he’s been encouraged by his therapist to go off for this weekend with his friends. He’s a nervous wreck and popping anxiety pills every four hours doesn’t seem to help.

Obviously the three have shared childhood memories and are around the same age, but apart from that it’s not easy to see why they maintain this relationship. Axel is a domineering, materialistic character who makes the decisions for all three. He’s a charmer, a born actor and it seems odd that he’d continue, in adulthood, to hang out with Philip and Jon. The ill-groomed Philip’s behaviour is marred by passivity and drug use, and Jon is a tangled, neurotic mess. It’s arguable that Jon and Philip might want to hang out with Axel since he has more independence, but why does Axel want to hang out with these two?

Axel suggests a boat trip onto the lake in the moonlight:

Axel Frimann was looking out of the window. It was almost midnight on 13 September and the moon cast a pale blue light across the water. There was something magical about it all. At any moment, Axel imagined, a water sprite might rise from the depths. Just as the image came to him, he thought he saw a ripple in the water as though something was about to surface. But nothing happened and a smile, which no one noticed, crossed his face.

Three men leave and two return. Can’t say more than that, and then the novel segues into the investigation. The novel peels away layer after layer of deceit, and the mystery becomes not just what happened that night, but the events that led up to that night.

Bad Intentions is a page-turner as it explores the psychology of the relationships between these three young men. One of the reasons the novel appealed is that it taps into a pet theory of mine–that certain combinations of character types can be deadly. The title gives clues to the novel’s moral message. I am fond of the proverb “The Road to hell is paved with good intentions” and in this novel, we see three young men–two of whom are weak and malleable who make some very bad choices. Crimes take place within these pages, but at the heart of these crimes lies the question of intention. And how can we know what anyone really intended to happen? We are only left with the consequences.

Axel started listing the good intentions which had motivated them originally. What had followed was bad luck, pure and simple, and beyond their control. In a moment of weakness they had been tricked by one of nature’s whims.

Inspector Sejer and his sidekick Jacob Skarre find that they must unravel a mystery in which intention plays a pivotal role. Their investigation takes them to Ladegarden Psychiatric Hospital and to the homes of grieving mothers. The best thing about the novel is its different slant on crime. There’s an emphasis on guilt, responsibility and intent, and at one point Inspector Sejer gives a very interesting speech on the subject:

Just because you’re to blame for something doesn’t mean you accept that blame. Or that you feel guilty. Gacy killed more than thirty people, but he said it was like squashing cockroaches. When he was finally caught, he went on about his childhood and how awful it had been. He spoke the following classic line when he was put in prison: “I’m the real victim here.”

My copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the Kindle.

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