Who are we without our memories? Are our senses of self innate, or are they born of the things we’ve seen and done? Liane Moriarty’s most recent novel, “What Alice Forgot” plays with the themes of memory and perception in such a deft manner that, until the very end of the novel, I didn’t realize that my own perceptions had been played with throughout the novel. It’s a smart novel, written with a lilting, almost silly voice that makes the pages easy to turn, but leaves the sense of the novel lingering even hours after finishing it.
The back cover reads: Alice Love is twenty-nine, crazy about her husband, Nick, and pregnant with their first child. So imagine Alice’s surprise when she comes to on the floor of a gym (she HATES the gym!) and is whisked off to the hospital, where she discovers the honeymoon is truly over. She is actually thirty-nine years old, has three kids, and is getting divorced. That knock on her head has misplaced ten years. Now Alice must piece together the events of the lost decade and find out if it’s possible to reconstruct her life at the same time. She needs to figure out why her sister hardly talks to her and how it is that she’s become one of those super skinny moms with really expensive clothes. Ultimately, Alice must discover whether forgetting is a blessing or a curse–and how to start over.
The idea isn’t terribly new — plenty of stories have dealt with sudden amnesia in the past, as have movies. The tone of the book, the flippant voice of the narrator, draws to mind the relatively recent movie “13 Going on 30” — take a younger, innocent, naive person and place them into a jaded person’s world. There’s nothing terribly new in the idea of the 29 year old in the divorcee’s body, trying to reconcile her present with the past.
What is new is the playful way other characters are drawn throughout the book. The first half of the book we see the secondary and tertiary characters through the eyes of 29 year old Alice, in particular her beloved sister and perfect husband. 29 year old Alice idolizes these characters, and when she’s suddenly placed in a future where they are estranged, she can’t understand why. The reader is lead to believe, for nearly half the book, that the estrangement is due to a souring of Alice’s own character, that it’s her fault that those relationships have disintegrated. With an unreliable narrator, we have no other way to reconcile the dissolution of these relationships. And, of course, Alice has adopted some vain, selfish mannerism: focusing on material things, and her physical appearance.
There are hints throughout the book, though, that this older Alice was never a completely vain, hateful person: she has three children, two of whom clearly and wildly adore her. It is evident that her relationship with her mother has improved, and she has a cadre of friends, some of whom are false and malicious, but some of whom seem to be genuinely good people. She’s involved with school projects, and volunteers.
As Alice’s memory returns, the reader is treated to a trick of memory — it becomes clear that, just as Alice has changed, so have the perfect husband and beloved sister. There is no one person at fault for the decline of the relationships — as they changed they changed apart, and as people who were too close, emotionally to the hardships of life, they let those hardships pull them apart. 29 year old Alice, without those memories creating a cast of hurt over her, wants to repair those relationships, but as she regains her memories she loses the sense of distance.
There are other little tricks of memory — Elizabeth, Alice’s sister, tells her story throughout the novel through journal entries to a psychiatrist — journal entries that pain her as more pessimistic and bitter than she is in really life, that harshness coming out in her writing. When she focuses, she becomes more bitter, and that is the woman that the author is treated to, though we see that is a trick as well, as she has a husband who adores her, a successful career, and strong relationships with her family. She isn’t the entirely broken woman that she appears to be — but when she chooses the memories to share, she is able to shape the perception of the reader.
Another character, Elizabeth and Alice’s adopted grandmother, tells her story through a series of love letters to her fiance, now dead for almost forty years. As perhaps the most trustworthy and honest character, her letters portray her growth, as she allows herself to open up to the world and to change — though it appears that for years she refused to change.
It’s this twist at the end — this realization that having a memory, knowing a fact, an event, a conversation from the past can utterly alter the perception the reader has of a character — brings a depth to Alice, who finally regains her memories at the end. There’s an epilogue that takes something away from the novel — it creates a happy ending that maybe doesn’t need to exist, a happy ending that is perhaps almost too happy for the rest of the book — but I couldn’t find myself to dislike it, because it was the ending that I wanted. The love stories running through, the love of a husband and wife, the love of a mother for her children, the love between sisters, is where the book ends. And the message that these emotions, these ties, need to exist both in memory and in the present to truly live.