The “still life” in Katharine Weber’s new novel is Duncan Wheeler, a 37-year-old successful Connecticut-based architect who receives life’s worst surprise when a car crash leaves him mostly paralyzed with a C6 spinal cord injury. The “monkey” is Ottoline, a female tufted capuchin monkey, close to 25 years old, who arrives from the Primate Institute of New England to help Duncan get used to his new reality. Connecting the two is Laura Wheeler, Duncan’s wife, whose profession as an art restorer at Yale University has made her the perfect person to also delicately restore her husband’s will to carry on.
The idea of a helper monkey at first seems ridiculous to Duncan (and even to Laura), like something made up for a Hollywood movie. But Ottoline proves them wrong almost instantly. Her ability to follow Duncan’s commands brings back some amount of solitude and privacy that he had sorely missed since his accident. Soon the Wheelers also realize that Ottoline’s mischievous nature is somewhat filling the gaping hole left by the child they never had.
But a still life with a helpful and loving monkey is still just that, and Weber expertly weaves Duncan’s internal conflict throughout the novel, constantly making the reader wonder if he will find the strength to continue living in his new circumstances and carry on with a will to make new legacies. Most importantly, Still Life with Monkey begs the question, “What would I do in this situation?” It’s a question that lingers long after the book ends.