The Analyst Climbs on the Couch

What does your analyst think of you? Does this person you pay to help you out secretly find you weak, boring or silly? On Saturday night, as I waited in line to see Zodiac at a 19th Street movie theater, a woman behind me—a therapist, mid-50’s—boasted of “not falling asleep on one patient today” and complained of a particular woman who, thankfully, had come for a one-hour session that afternoon instead of the usual two hours. What a nightmare—to become a joke to entertain your shrink’s friends.

But what if your therapist actually learns from you? What if your sessions aren’t a bore after all—what if they’re therapy for the therapist?

In The Other Side of You, British novelist Salley Vickers’ smart, haunting exploration of love and loss, Elizabeth Cruikshank is in the care of Dr. David McBride—our narrator—as she recovers from an attempted suicide. McBride is a specialist in the field; “Like is drawn to like,” he says early on, explaining that he counts himself among the “denizens of that hinterland where life and death are sister and brother.” Having lost his dear older brother as a boy, McBride came through adolescence to middle age in the company of his sibling’s ghost, alternating between trying to will Jonny back to the living and contemplating joining him in another life.

Cruikshank appears to McBride as a mystery. She’s quiet and pensive, withholding even as he tries to coax her into talking. “There’s no cure for being alive,” he says, sympathetically. Being cautious—and promising not to push—he eventually succeeds in winning her trust, and embarks on a seven-hour therapy session that changes them both forever.

Cruikshank’s story turns out to be one of love found, lost, found again, lost again. In its ordinariness, it is real, and very sad. The man involved, Thomas Carrington, is a Caravaggio scholar, and much of their relationship is told through careful and loving description of various paintings and the spots, mostly in Rome, where they may be found.

But Ms. Vickers never gives the novel over to monologue. She deftly interweaves McBride’s own history and present—including the details of his glamorous, shallow wife; his close friendship with a fellow talk-therapy advocate; and his various relationships with other patients and colleagues at the hospital where he works. Without making McBride a saint, Ms. Vickers draws him as a gentle and decent man who’s trying to find himself even as he helps others find their own path back to life. He hardly seems a fantasy—he’s as ordinary as his patient’s tale—which makes him an appealing companion.

Do such therapists really exist? I hope so—as much as I hope that love, as Salley Vickers seems to think, might actually save our lives.

Hillary Frey edits the culture section of The Observer.

The Analyst Climbs on the Couch