One of the perks of working at a newspaper — besides knowing before anyone else who was arrested for shoplifting — is that quite often book publishers and self-publishers will send advance copies of books hoping for a review in the paper. I will always give a book a look, but as I am not a full-time book reviewer, I can’t review them all. I try to limit reviews to local authors whose books I think merit a review rather than just a mention, or to authors who are scheduled to visit Winona.
The other day, I received a request for a review of a book by an author who is a professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Right off the bat, that is against my self-imposed rules. However, my daughter Cassidy is a Carleton alumma, and the professor teachers French, which I can actually almost read. I put the book aside to read later, but the publisher sent a reminder email, so I put the book on top of the pile.
I’m glad I did. I spent last Sunday, usually laundry day at my house, sitting on the deck reading the novel. The day went quickly, and I was immersed in an intelligently crafted and written story, enjoying a much-needed respite from winter. The best part was I didn’t feel guilty because I was actually “working!”
“Theory of Remainders,” by Scott Dominic Carpenter, is a novel about the intricacies and mutations of grief, framed in the mystery genre. The story is about a psychiatrist, Philip Adler, who lives and practices in Boston and who, during his first marriage, lived in France with his wife and daughter. He is called back to France by his ex-wife on the occasion of the death of her mother. However, the grief that has paralyzed Adler is over the violent death of their only daughter, which had occurred in France several years previously. The action takes place today, in Normandy, an area of France that saw much action during the Second World War as the Germans drove across the country for a final showdown with the Allies in 1944, a fact that plays heavily in the book.
The prose is clean and evocative. Carpenter’s descriptions of Normandy — one of the most beautiful and historically important areas of France — and its inhabitants create a mental video for the reader. Language plays heavily in this cerebral mystery. Philip Adler is fluent in French, but is a native English speaker. The reader easily feels the strain and strangeness Adler encounters trying to make himself understood, and understand others, in a second language that is no longer second nature to him. Complicating Adler’s search for the answer to the mystery surrounding his daughter’s death is a mentally ill Frenchman. Adler’s psychiatric training is his guide through the quagmire of that man’s mind to the solid ground of truth.
As Adler, who is a tall American, travels the back roads of Normandy in a tiny rental Smart Car — a metaphor for the carefully restricted life Adler has been leading since the death of his daughter — the reader is skillfully led not only through the French landscape, but the inner landscapes of the characters. Carpenter’s mystery genre talents are considerable, as the reader is tempted to bite on one red herring after another.
“Theory of Remainders” is a thoughtful, gentle book about death and renewal that will also entertain the reader through a beautiful sunny weekend on the deck.