Sometimes it’s nice to just blow an afternoon on a quick, engaging read, and this book is perfect for such a day. It opens with our narrator, Pat, being picked up from a mental hospital by his mother against his doctor’s advice. Since we’re inside Pat’s head and limited by his perspective, and he has chosen not to think about the incident that got him into the hospital, the details are slow to emerge and occasionally purposely obscured. Mostly, Pat thinks about how he can get back together with his wife, Nikki. He exercises obsessively and works on being “kind instead of right,” thinking that if he continues to improve himself, he can get her back.
The way everyone else reacts to Pat’s Nikki obsession makes it clear that she’s not coming back, despite his delusions. But we don’t know why not, and that question was so intriguing, I found myself flipping pages as quickly as I could to find out.
Then there’s Tiffany—another wounded, slightly wacky soul who seems to have many of the same problems as Pat. Her husband Tommy is dead, but again, we don’t know how he died, or what issues she’s working out with the therapist she talks about. Even though Pat is focused on Nikki, Tiffany keeps coming back, even following five feet behind him as he runs. Eventually, he lets her run beside him, and takes her to a diner for Raisin Bran. (Wish I were kidding.) Watching these two damaged characters alternately support and hurt each other was mesmerizing. There’s something so refreshing about a conversation between two people who have absolutely no filters.
Pat also has some baggage to work through with his family. His dad and brother are devoted (obsessed?) Eagles fans, and Pat is able to bond with them over games with some success. However, his parents’ marriage is strained (partly by Pat’s issues), and putting his life back together among all the drama is hard on Pat. His whimsical therapist, Cliff, a diminutive Indian man and one of my favorite characters, helps him talk his way toward a breakthrough, while avoiding most of the shrink stereotypes.
I’ll admit I was hesitant to read this book or see the corresponding film (which followed the book, well, not at all, really—it’s “based on the novel” in the same way Velveeta is a “pasteurized cheese food”) because I thought they would be big downers. I was delighted to find how wrong I was. Both book and movie are uplifting in the best, most satisfying way. Because the characters’ contentment is hard-won, there’s nothing cheap or contrived about it. This is messy, beautiful, both/and life.