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Love And A 'Disturbed' Mind

'Atmosperic Disturbances'

Rivka Galchen's debut novel opens on a psychologically dark and stormy night. "Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife," psychiatrist Dr. Leo Lieberstein tells the reader. He is convinced this "simulacrum" (as he disdainfully refers to her) who walks, talks and acts like his young wife, Rema, is merely a flawless copy and that the real Rema has disappeared.

Early on, the mystery is settled for us; in fact, it's Leo who has disappeared. He's losing his mind. Convinced he's part of an intricate underground group that controls the weather, he chases his delusions with the help of his schizophrenic patient, Harvey, and an enigmatic fellow of the Royal Meteorlogical Society, Tzvi Gal-Chen.

Atmospheric Disturbances is so precisely calibrated and stacked with elaborate metafictional puzzles that the first few chapters have a low emotional temperature. (For example, Tzvi Gal-Chen is the name of author's late father; hear more in an interview with Riva Galchen.) Once the state of Leo's sanity is confirmed, you'll find yourself stumbling into the warm spots, the bits of reality poking through the dense layers of his illusions. And it's then that the heartbreaking truth of the story — the growing distance between Leo and Rema — hits like a thunderbolt. She is terrified, he is lonely and stubborn and obsessed. In the end, it's much like the fracture of any long-term love: "You are not the person I married."

Be warned, this is difficult stuff. Sorting out the gaping fissures in Leo's mind is hard work, and the reward for your intellectual diligence can be emotionally devastating. But it is Leo himself who sounds a hopeful note. Even the disloyalty of his faltering mind can't erase what's in his heart. There, his love is real.

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Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.