June 2008

Not my beautiful wife

By Rivka Galchen
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If someone close to you were replaced by a doppelganger, one who looked and spoke exactly like your loved one, would you know, in your heart, that the person was an imposter? This question pervades Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen’s inventive debut novel.

The story begins at the apartment of middle-aged New York psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, the novel’s narrator. His young wife, Rema, a charming, beautiful Argentine with oft-mentioned “cornsilk hair,” has just walked through the door. Leo notes that she looks like Rema, she walks like Rema, she talks like Rema and her mannerisms are identical to Rema’s. But instantly, he knows—this woman is not his wife.  From that moment on, he refers to this ersatz Rema as the simulacrum.

Thus begins a journey both physical and psychological, as Leo embarks on a desperate search for his “missing” wife, scouring every location from the New York pastry shop where they first met to Argentina to Patagonia.

This journey is not a simple one; Galchen treats it as a puzzle, weaving in intriguing clues along the way. Also tied into the voyage is Leo’s patient Harvey, who believes he is a weather-controlling member of the Royal Academy of Meteorology (amusingly, he claims to receive messages on Page Six of the New York Post). As his search continues, Leo, who once tried to cure Harvey, incorporates his patient’s delusions (or are they?) into his own theories of Rema’s disappearance.

So, has the doctor become the insane one, or are his seemingly paranoid fantasies the true reality? And what, exactly, is the nature of reality? Galchen has crafted a smart, involving tale that keeps the reader guessing on these matters throughout. The novel seems an ideal book club pick, as its complex story allows for many interpretations and could likely spark heated debate.

But Atmospheric Disturbances is more than a brain-teasing mystery complete with cryptic dialogue, erudite sentence construction, charts, bizarre photos and visual-perception exercises. There is ultimately a very human side to the story, one which explores the nature of love and its permutations over time. Perhaps we can never really know our loved ones as well as we think we do, and maybe full trust in another (including in their very identity) is an impossibility.

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