Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Co-review: Iodine

There might have been a few times that I have written on this particular blog about how much I like Haven Kimmel's books. Summary: a lot. When I saw that another of her books was coming out, I wrote to Caren, "Oooh ooh ooh! Let's review it!" She's a good sport, so here it is. The co-review of Iodine by Haven Kimmel.

Here's the lowdown. It's the story of a troubled, homeless college student named Trace Pennington, who is using the fake name of Ianthe to her fellow students and co-workers. I know what you're thinking. You wish you had picked that name as your superhero/literary genius code name. Trace partially narrates this book through her dream journals, which obscures reality with flashbacks and present events that make you wonder how much is dream and how much is her actual life. It's a tale of the psychologically troubled, overflowing with more erudite vocabulary and baffling intellectual factoids than a normal Kimmel book, and that's saying something. Notice all those big words I just used in that last sentence? Yeah, I can write like Kimmel too.

Trace seems to be barely holding herself together and has huge lapses of time that she cannot account for. She lives in a deserted farmhouse with her dog and starts to semi-stalk a professor that she feels a connection to. She has a very disturbing past that you're not entirely sure the truth of, and now latches on to this professor, who falls for her as well. Trace is determined to discover the fate of the professor's first wife and seems a bit obsessed with it. Boy, really, that girl has problems, but that's the point. As always, we spoil endings like crazy, so if you'd like to read this book before you read what we think of it, go no further!

Jenny: I have to admit, that the departure from Kimmel's usual writing style (humor amidst the tragedy) was sad for me. This book was incredibly suspenseful and intense to read, but I miss the humor. And honestly, I didn't think she could write any more confusingly, but she topped herself in this book. Does that mean it'll get harder and harder to read her books the further along she gets?

Another problem I had with this book is that I pitied Trace/Ianthe, but I didn't like her. At least in her other books, I liked, and in some cases loved, some of the characters. I didn't like anybody in this book. Maybe her dog.

Caren: I didn't feel very attached to these characters either. I wanted Trace to be successful, but I really couldn't understand her. And I was really suspicious of her professor/boyfriend/husband because he didn't seem very balanced either. Of course, seeing things through her perspective it was hard to know how much was just typical quirkiness and how much was him trying to control and manipulate her. Oh, and the dog? I am so NOT a dog person, so I couldn't believe it when I was mourning for the darn thing!

The story drew me in, though, and I thought I was following it fine until the very end. The dream journal was a little hard to follow because she'd cut off mid-sentence just when she was starting to reveal something tantalizing and then go off in a different direction. And she'd change tenses from first to third person, but the tone stayed enough the same that it wasn't too jarring. So overall I thought I knew what was going on. That is, until her husband tells the doctor that they've been married four years and she thinks it's only been four months. I thought, "Did I miss something?" But then I realized that I didn't even know they'd gotten married -- so yeah, she was definitely holding back crucial information. Then the final revealing at the end of how her dad and brother died made me realize that I really didn't have a clue!

As disturbing as much of it was (especially the abuse and the sexual obsession with her father), I was intrigued that Kimmel was able to explore mental illness in such a way. It sort of reminded me of the movie A Beautiful Mind where you naturally believe the story you're given, but once things are turned upside down then you have no idea what is real and what isn't. I think that manipulation of the narrative was very effective in order to get a sense of how tenuous reality was for this woman. On the one hand, I wished I could be getting the story from a different perspective so I could know if these other characters were all as screwy as the seemed. But on the other hand, it would have lost a lot of it's potency as an exposition on mental illness that way.

I am curious what I would have gotten with a second reading. Now that I know how it ends, are there clues in the narrative that would help me sort out what was real and what was the product of her mental illness? Are there additional layers of meaning that I missed the first time around? But the emotional toll made it so hard to get through in the first place that I really don't want to do that again! So I'm afraid I'll just have to stay unenlightened on this one!

Jenny: I think that's what made the book so suspenseful for me, knowing that something was going on that we didn't know about and waiting for all this tension to finally get released. The ending flattened me completely. I was so clueless about what she was leading up to, but like you said, could I have figured it out on my own anyway? I don't think I'll be reading it again to catch any clues. It was exhausting enough the first time around.

I love your comparison to A Beautiful Mind. What I wish Kimmel had done was to make me love Trace like I loved John Nash or his wife in A Beautiful Mind, or at least feel some compassion. Even though we were getting some of her narrative through her dream journal, I still didn't feel a connection to her. Mostly I felt pity and dread. The losses of time, the disturbing flashbacks, the disconnect with reality built up a whole lot of nervous tension on my part and I just wanted to get to the end as fast as possible.

The husband was an interesting character too, because I really didn't like him and thought he was a jerk at the beginning, then by the end I felt better about him because of how he was trying to help Trace. Maybe we could have loved him and Trace better if we had gotten more of his perspective on things. Or maybe that would be beside the point of the whole book, which is to examine/experience? mental illness.

I thought about going to Haven Kimmel's blog and reading through her discussion page for Iodine, but her blog is usually such a crowd of admirers that I didn't think I'd read much that didn't say how brilliant the book was. That's not to say the book isn't brilliant, I just don't think I liked it all that much.

Caren: Yeah, I really didn't like it either. It would have made for an interesting discussion in a college class (and maybe if I knew more about psychology I would have gotten more out of it). I just felt like I was missing significant things. Like the coyote and the whole alien abduction theme. She put a heavy emphasis on archetypal images so I know they must have been important, but I felt like it was all over my head.

The description on the jacket talked about how it was ultimately hopeful, but I didn't find the ending all that hopeful or redemptive. I suppose maybe the fact that she finally faced her most traumatic memory (or was it? it seemed like the things that her mom did to her were pretty traumatic) might have signaled that healing was on the way. But it sure didn't leave me feeling very optimistic that things would somehow get better. Unless you have a strong interest and understanding of psychology, I would suggest passing on this one.

Jenny: Amen to that. Pick a different Kimmel book to enjoy.


  1. Thanks for the review. I'm glad you did the reading for me, because things that are disturbing give me nightmares.

  2. Interesting. I will definitely be adding this to my to-read list. I think it's good for people to learn more about mental illness so they're not so "scared" of it. My best friend's husband has bipolar and it is a day to day struggle for their whole family and the world at large just doesn't get it (ie members of their extended families, church members, work associates, etc.). The more enlightened people get, the more instruction per se they receive on how differently brains work and how mental illness affects brains, the better off society in general can be and the more empathy we will be able to have.

  3. Jen, I hope you share your take on it after you read it. I agree that there's a lot of good that can come from learning more about mental illness and those who struggle with it. But I'm not sure if Iodine accomplishes that. Partly because of what Jenny pointed out about not feeling very connected to the characters. But reading it with a different lens, maybe your experience will be different, so you'll have to tell us all what you think. There's definitely a lot to think about!