Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Echo Maker

The Echo Maker was loaned to me by a coworker. I read it at a snail’s pace because, despite being in my 17th week of pregnancy, I’m still pretty queasy most of the time. My attention span is also closer to a gnat’s than a human’s these days, which doesn’t help.

The Echo Maker is about a woman in her early 30’s, whose younger brother is in a terrible car accident. She goes home to help him with his recovery (they have no other relatives) but when he wakes up from his coma, finds that while he acknowledges that she looks just like his sister, he thinks she is an imposter. The brain damage incurred in the car accident has caused a rare condition called Capgras Syndrome where victims think that their loved ones have been doubled or replaced by robots. They recognize the person, but lose the emotional connection associated with them. Because they can’t attach any emotional bond to this person, they are convinced that the person is a “double”. This is the story of their relationship, what his condition does to it, his favorite nurse, and the famous brain doctor that comes from New York to observe and maybe help him.

The premise of the story is really interesting and the writing is very sophisticated, but I still struggled with the book at times. I finished the book a day or two ago, but I’ve been stuck on how to summarize my “issues” with it.

Firstly - I felt he didn’t do the best job with character development. Or maybe it was just that I didn’t like any of the characters very much so I had a hard time connecting to them? In particular, I thought he had a really loose grasp on how to write from a female’s perspective. His women didn’t really feel like women to me. Which is odd because he chose to write the first 200 pages or so with the sister as the main character. I just couldn’t get into her. The only character I had a pretty easy time sympathizing with was the brother with the brain damage. He wasn’t described as particularly likable, but later I wondered if he was made more relatable or “real” for a reason. I say this because later in the book, the author leads you to question humanity and maybe he was trying to make the point that the only really “true” character was the one who thought everything in his life was a lie. Pretentious, yes. But that was kind of the feel of the book for me at the end.

Secondly - I didn’t like the marriage between Weber (the famous brain doctor) and his wife. I think it was meant to seem really intimate, but the fact that their pet names for each other were “Man” and “Woman” felt incredibly unnatural to me. No matter how many times I tried to hear someone routinely (like even while fighting with each other) calling their wife “woman”, or a wife calling her husband “man” without sounding stupid (or like a 20 year old stoner in the 70’s), I couldn’t. There were other aspects to the description of their marriage that made me wonder if the author had maybe never been in a long term relationship and was just describing what he thought a 30 year marriage would look like.

Thirdly - I felt like midway through the book, the story became less of the focus and it became more about the science of brain damage and the philosophical questions that brain disorders pose. It got a little “deep” for me at times, but this may have just been because I wasn’t in the mood to wonder if the person with the brain damage actually sees the world more clearly than those of us without. I’m more of a story/plot driven type reader, so this lost my interest a bit.

In the book’s defense, the prose is beautifully written and very sophisticated. I haven’t looked, but I would imagine he also writes poetry. There's a slight mystery twist to the story in which you are left wondering about the mysterious circumstances of the car accident, and I liked this part of the book quite a bit. I just got hung up on some of the details. Truthfully, I should probably just stick to chick lit while I’m pregnant. Then maybe I could finish more than one book per month.