Salley Vickers’s The Other Side of You is a lovely, smart, beautiful book. I didn’t fall in love with it, as I thought I might, but that doesn’t keep me from seeing how others might love it and that it has an awful lot to recommend it. I suppose what this tells me that being lovely, smart, and beautiful isn’t enough when it comes to fiction; there also has to be some spark or sense of identification (and not of the easy “I identify with the characters” sort) that a person feels for a book to truly fall in love with it.
It tells the story of David McBride, a psychiatrist, who is treating a particularly challenging patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, who has tried and failed to commit suicide and who is now resistant to David’s attempts to get her to talk. In the book’s early pages, we learn about David’s life at the same time that we read about his first sessions with Elizabeth. David himself suffered a trauma as a young child: he witnessed his brother’s death as the brother tried to lead him across the street and was hit by a lorry. The narrative is written in the first person from David’s perspective, and David is open from the very beginning about how this tragedy still haunts him, many years later. He has done his best to recover from it, but he knows that this is the sort of event one doesn’t really ever get over.
Eventually Elizabeth does open up and begin to tell her story, which David retells to the reader in a long passages that recreate the scenes Elizabeth lived through. At this point something magical begins to happen to David. He finds himself so profoundly moved by Elizabeth’s story that he begins to think again about his own past and his own wounds, and he begins to move beyond the role of a psychiatrist to relate to Elizabeth as a friend.
One of the things I particularly liked about this book is the way it questions the roles of analyst and patient, particularly the power dynamic that usually exists between the two, with the patient as the needy one and the analyst as the source of healing and guidance. David reveals to us — and eventually to Elizabeth — just how vulnerable and broken he is and how in need of help he is himself. During long conversations in which they both tell their stories, he breaks some of the rules designed to keep boundaries up between doctor and patient and shows as he does so just how complex doctor/patient relationships really are and how mysterious the healing process can be. The dynamic between living, breathing human beings can’t really be contained by professional rules.
Vickers weaves into her story a contemplation of the way art can shape one’s life. Art is what begins the deepening of Elizabeth and David’s friendship: Elizabeth had fallen in love with a man who studied Caravaggio, an artist who has been meaningful in David’s life as well, and it’s David’s mention of Caravaggio that gets Elizabeth to talk in the first place. So bound up in this exploration of love and loss there is also a role for art and beauty, for the way art can express what seems impossible to put into words and the way it can become an inextricable part of the bonds that hold people together.
I’m almost writing myself into liking this book more than I really did. The truth is that I admired all this in a detached kind of way. Reading the book was an intellectual exercise in seeing how Vickers brought her ideas together, rather than an experience of thinking and feeling all at once. I never came to care about the characters all that much, except as ways to explore ideas. I don’t need to identify with characters in the sense of liking them or being able to imagine knowing them in my own life, but I do want to feel that they are alive, that there is some spark there that makes them seem real.
I’m genuinely sorry about this one, because all the elements are there that might make me fall in love with it. But, alas, even when we want to fall in love, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.