Virginia Reeves turns her prodigious writing talent to a challenging time and place: the 1970s and the Boulder River School and Hospital, a state institution that houses 750 people with disabilities.
Psychiatrist Ed Malinowski was recently hired as superintendent – a responsibility he relishes. He and his wife Laura moved to Helena from Michigan, where he’d been involved in transferring people out of institutions into group homes and assisted living facilities. He hopes to oversee the same transformation here, despite a stifling bureaucracy and reluctant legislators.
But aspirations and reality are worlds apart. And so, increasingly, are he and his wife. As the author nimbly switches narratives between the couple, we hear tensions escalating. He’s too devoted to his job, thinks Laura, and to one patient in particular, the lovely and gifted Penelope, whose only diagnosis is epilepsy.
In an effort to rekindle their relationship, she volunteers to teach art at the school, where she finds “more sickness than I’ve ever seen in one place, and of such a different kind … The people in front of me will never heal from their afflictions, and their afflictions won’t kill them either. They will simply remain.”
Dr. Ed, the behavioral psychologist, seems oddly unable to manage his own impulses – he drinks too much, cares too deeply for Penelope, and is wed to his job.
The author writes so knowingly about marriage – the intimacy and estrangement that can happen almost simultaneously, how commitment can linger long after the end of a relationship. And she jarringly evokes a time, a half century ago, when booze and cigarettes were staples of Montana culture (even for pregnant women) and developmentally disabled people were stored out of sight, in a decrepit building full of “soot and sadness.”
Reeves writes that the inspiration for her story was her late father-in-law, Mike Muszkiewicz, a behavioral psychologist who worked at Boulder in the ’70s, and like Dr. Ed, suffered an aneurism and stroke while in the prime of his life.
The author’s debut, Work Like Any Other, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She lives in Helena with her husband and daughters. Esquire describes her latest as “even-handed and sensitive” while Publishers Weekly calls it a “crisp, powerful novel.”
– Kristi Niemeyer