A couple of months ago, I spent the afternoon watching a new movie I'd known nothing about which was based on the novel "I Smile Back." Sarah Silverman played the lead role, and her performance, plus the script, completely drew me in. I instantly became fascinated by the author of the book. This is how I discovered Amy Koppelman! My favorite authors are the ones who write in deceptively simple language about the everyday things we often overlook -- the tea kettle boiling; the wind chimes gently rocking in the breeze, etc. Yet underneath their simple words are the deepest, most potent, emotions few human beings have the guts to bring to the surface, let alone write about. My short list of these writers include diarist Anais Nin and novelist Banana Yoshimoto. They have been my favorites for years. I'm so excited to finally add a third writer to my club, and this is Amy Koppelman. Here is my book review of her latest novel, "Hesitation Wounds."
“Hesitation Wounds” is the story of Dr. Susanna Seliger who treats patients with severe depression by administering shock treatment therapy. For many years, she has shuffled through life by keeping herself closed off and ignoring her emotions which is why this work suits her. She doesn't believe in talk therapy and doesn't want her patients to confide in her. She just wants to buzz their feelings out of them. But everything changes when she treats Jim for whom the shock treatments don't seem to work. Talking to Jim takes her out of her shell and, in turn, forces her to face her grief over her brother, Daniel, who died when she and Daniel were both teens. “Hesitation Wounds” is mostly a dialog between Suze and her late brother. Many times, it reads like a letter to him. Throughout the book, Suze recounts moments from their life together. Many memories are pleasant. She recalls the summer when they hung outdoors with their friends, listening to the boom box, lying down and staring into the black city sky:
“It's the end of summer now. We are on our backs, arms and legs touching. We gaze at the moon. Margo thinks the moon is hanging especially low. It wants to shake your hand.”
But other times, the details of his tragic and somewhat reckless death creep through.
Her patient, Jim reminds her of Daniel. They both have similar builds and voices. Speaking of Jim elicits constant thoughts of death in her because he is suicidal. Just before he is about to receive another round of electric shock treatments which he has no faith will work, he asks her to tell him a story about what his life will be like six years from now. Koppelman's account through Suze of what a day in the life of a future, happily-adjusted, family man, Jim, will be like is beautiful and cinematic. It truly moved me, and I hope there will be a film version of “Hesitation Wounds” someday to see this passage unfold in pictures.
While most books depict grief by showing the event, having the mourner cry it out, completely traumatized, then describe them on the pathway to healing, Koppleman's portrayal of the grief experience is not like this. Grieving is not interpreted as overblown and dramatic. It is simple and matter of fact. But it's the facts that people have the most trouble facing. Grief does not get better over time but rather you learn to function better. As Koppelman explains, every day you are reminded of the person you lost through the mundane things around you. She asks: “What would Dan think of cell phones?” This sentence hit home for me because my father died in 1984, and with every new technology that comes out, I'm reminded of him: “What would Dad think of laptops? Social media? The internet?” This is truly what grief is all about: Your thoughts on a daily basis. In Koppelman's stream-of-consciousness dialog to Daniel, she writes:
“Things I forgot to ask: I forgot to ask you why you didn't like egg in your fried rice...how it was we began eating potato chips with ketchup, who your favorite Beatle was...”
“Hesitation Wounds” reminds us that life is about the little things. Besides grief, it is about depression and the simpler things most of us take for granted but can cause a person suffering from depression to get completely bogged down by. Every movement, interaction and inner thought becomes a feat of near impossibility, leading to exhaustion. Suze's depression is primarily caused by many years of unresolved grief. Here is how Suze has learned to survive her crippling thoughts of grief:
“I turn away. Memory is like this for me now. I can turn away from it. I repeat this thought out loud, as if the mere act of saying it, like an incantation, will transform the idea into reality. And because it's true. I can do this now.”
She stops and adds:
“Most of the time.”
Because that's how you move forward from grief. You just choose to forget. You don't heal completely, but you learn to live.
To order Amy Koppelman's "Hesitation Wounds" go to