Thursday, May 21, 2020

Fiction Review: Imagine Me Gone

In my pandemic-fueled quest to read from my own shelves, I dove into an award-winning novel that my husband gave me for Christmas, Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. This deeply moving and immersive novel about family and mental illness was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, Andrew Carnegie Medal, National Book Critics Circle Award, and it won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 2016.

Right from the prologue, you know this novel is going to end in some sort of disaster, with brothers Alec and Michael staying alone in a house in coastal Maine in the winter. Then the narrative moves back to the past, when the boys and their sister, Celia, were young, and the family--including parents Margaret and John--were packing up for their annual summer vacation at a house in Maine loaned to them by a family friend, which is clearly a happy place for all of them. With Margaret narrating, she goes even further into the past, when she and John were dating and living in England (where he's from), and she noticed one fall when he became more distracted, was talking far less, and his "clock began to run more slowly." While Margaret is back in New York for the Christmas holiday, John is hospitalized. She's confused when the doctors explain that he's just tired and needs to rest and that John has been hospitalized under similar circumstances before. Being the 1960's, though, nothing further is explained, and in fact, no one wants to talk about it. Margaret also talks about the children: eldest son Michael is eccentric and intense, middle-child Celia is entering adolescence and harder to reach, and youngest Alec is energetic and affectionate. She also muses on her ineffectiveness as a parent:
"With children, everything's already happening and then over with. It happens while you're trying to keep up and gone by the time you arrive at a new view of things."
Chapters alternate between each of the five family members, as the children gradually grow up and move into their adult lives. Alec is gay and a successful businessman but has trouble committing to a serious relationship. Celia has moved out to California and is in a relationship but undecided as to whether to stay. Michael struggles all of his life, in and out of school, wanting to focus on his passion--music--but often unable to live on his own, and involved in a series of dead-end relationships in which he becomes obsessed with unattainable women. John's chapters delve into the depths of his mental illness and his constant struggle to simply live a normal life:
"Against the monster, I've always wanted meaning. Not for its own sake, because in the usual course of things, who needs the self-consciousness of it? Let meaning be immanent, noted in passing, if at all. But that won't do when the monster has its funnel driven into the back of your head and is sucking the light coming through your eyes straight out of you into the mouth of oblivion. So, like a cripple I long for what others don't notice they have: ordinary meaning."

As you can probably tell, this is a very thoughtful novel with a lot of emotional depth; there is ample fodder here for book groups to talk about. In fact, I broke my general rule of short reviews here because I just had to include some quotes (I tabbed many pages while reading) and extra detail. From John's passage up above (and Michael's are similarly enlightening), you can see that this book provides an inside look into what it feels like to grapple with mental illness (serious depression certainly and probably bipolar disorder). The use of multiple narrators, though, also digs deep into the effects of mental illness on the entire family, including Margaret's worries and fears as wife and mother and Alec's and Celia's lifelong concerns and feelings of obligation to help care for their brother. As you might suspect, there are some very dark moments in this story, and it is an often-painful account of a seriously dysfunctional and disrupted family. Ultimately, though, it is also a warm story of healing and of the power of family connections.

356 pages, Back Bay Books

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible. The sample is from the very beginning of the book, a haunting prologue in Michael's voice that gives you an idea of both the humorous and disturbing quality of his narrations.

You can purchase Imagine Me Gone from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order Imagine Me Gone from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. The description of this book reminds me a bit of the show 7 Up (14 Up, 21 Up, etc). Did you ever watch those? If not, you'd like them. I like the idea of following the family through time and hearing it from all their point of view.

    1. Oh! No, I haven;t watched them, but I've wanted to for years, ever since I first heard of them - a series of documentaries following people every 7 years, starting at age 7, right? I need to finally check that out!