What Alice Forgot

9780425247440_p0_v1_s260x420A friend of mine always calculates her birthday at 29, celebrating its anniversary, and not admitting to aging beyond that age.  In Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, Alice hits her head and loses the memory of ten years just before her 40th birthday, making her 29 again.

After Alice falls off her bike in spin class, she wakes up to an unfamiliar world.  Her clothes seem to belong to someone else, and she has no memory of her three children, her impending divorce, or the death of her best friend.   Unfortunately, she also doesn’t recognize the person she has become over the last ten years; evidently, her former self was happier, friendlier, and a better version.  As Alice ponders her predicament, Elizabeth, her older sister, fills in the blanks of the missing years for the reader with letters to her therapist.

A quick, easy romance with a humorous premise – picked for discussion by one of my book clubs.  Nice diversion…who wouldn’t want a chance for a “do-over.”

Before I Go To Sleep

Every morning Christine wakes up surprised to find she has aged twenty years and that the strange man in her bed is her husband.  Each night, as she sleeps, her memory is wiped clean.  Although this is the same premise as the comedy film, 50 First Dates, with Drew Barrymore, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep is not funny.  This gripping mystery thriller will have you wondering from the beginning who and what is behind Christine’s mysterious dilemma.

As her husband feeds her restricted information in small doses  – pictures on bathroom mirrors, a scrapbook of the few pictures remaining from the fire that destroyed most of the family memorabilia, Christine suspects he is lying to her, and only revealing part of the history she cannot remember.  She secretly meets with a doctor specializing in memory loss, and as she records her impressions  in a journal, she begins to remember swatches of events and people from her past.   Although she is beginning to remember, the disconnect between her flashbacks and the story her husband tells her about her past keeps her from revealing the journal to him. Who can she trust? Is her husband lying to protect her or for some other reason? Visions of Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Gaslight” flashed through my head, as I read.

Watson keeps the suspense taut, slowly unraveling the details to a surprise ending. I couldn’t stop reading.

Caution:  If you start reading this before bedtime, you will not get to sleep until you finish.

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Remember the movie, “50 First Dates”? Drew Barrymore’s character had a memory that rebooted after each day as the result of a car accident. In Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, a mathematics professor suffers a similar fate. He can remember everything before the accident, but now his memory restarts every 80 minutes.

His sister-in-law contracts a housekeeper to come each day to clean and cook. Despite the professor’s memory problem, a friendship develops between them. The housekeeper’s young son connects with the professor through their mutual love of baseball, and the story becomes a lesson in family and relationships.

Ogawa cleverly invents situations to reveal the professor’s vulnerability and dependence – an expedition to the barber, his first baseball game – poignant and funny. As the housekeeper’s care extends beyond her job, her persistence and patience in being “new” to the professor every 80 minutes is not the slapstick of Hollywood movies, but as carefully worded as a mathematical word problem.

The one constant in the story is the professor’s love of math. The professor is constantly working a mathematical proof or teaching the housekeeper and her son about numbers. The professor’s enthusiasm for math is catching and soon the housekeeper and her son are looking forward to solving the math problems the professor poses. The professor’s encouragement is like no math teacher you have ever had.

‘It’s important to use your intuition. You swoop down on the numbers, like a kingfisher catching the glint of sunlight on the fish’s fin.’

Ogawa includes actual mathematical problems – which you can solve or skip. As the solution of each math problem is revealed, a philosophical note follows.

”Lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem…But those things aren’t the goal of mathematics. The only goal is to discover the truth.”

The slim book is translated from Japanese, and, at times, the language is stilted and slow; nevertheless, the cultural references to patience and respect for elders create beautiful imagery that would not have been the same otherwise. Through eleven chapters, Ogawa offers a story that is elegant and discrete.

The professor finds peace in numbers. Where do you find peace?