Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *Inside*, by Alix Ohlin

cover of INSIDE, a novel by Alix Ohlin
Alix Ohlin (Twitter)
Knopf (June 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0307596923 / 9780307596925)
Fiction, 272 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (June 8, 2012).

Opening lines: “At first glance she mistook him for something else. In fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she’d been cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, she’d found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions; she’d come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: When Grace, a competent and devoted therapist in Montreal, stumbles across a man who has just failed to hang himself, her instinct to help kicks in immediately. Before long, however, she realizes that her feelings for this charismatic, extremely guarded stranger are far from straightforward. In the meantime, her troubled teenage patient, Annie, runs away from home and soon will reinvent herself in New York as an aspiring and ruthless actress, as unencumbered as humanly possible by any personal attachments. And Mitch, Grace’s ex-husband, a therapist as well, leaves the woman he’s desperately in love with to attend to a struggling native community in the bleak Arctic. We follow these four compelling, complex characters from Montreal and New York to Hollywood and Rwanda, each of them with a consciousness that is utterly distinct and urgently convincing. With razor-sharp emotional intelligence, Inside poignantly explores the many dangers as well as the imperative of making ourselves available to—and responsible for—those dearest to us.

Comments: One of the great attractions of reading fiction is getting inside a character’s head–it’s a level of access we rarely get to anyone’s thoughts and feelings other than our own, and it affords the reader an advantage over the characters. In her psychologically astute, emotionally resonant novel Inside, Alix Ohlin allows the reader to know her characters more fully than any of them will ever know each other.

The linchpin of Inside is Montreal therapist Grace Tomlinson. Recently divorced and preoccupied with one teenage client, Grace is skiing alone when she almost literally stumbles across a man in the midst of a suicide attempt. He survives, and she is drawn to him, leading to a relationship that blurs the lines between personal and professional. Her ex-husband Mitch, also a therapist, is attempting to move on, and despite living in the same city, he and Grace won’t cross paths again for several years. Meanwhile, Grace’s charismatic young patient Annie slips away from Montreal and winds up in New York City, trying to pursue an acting career. She stumbles across someone, too–an uncomfortably familiar teenage girl–and finds herself recalling her old therapist.

While they are physically apart for stretches of the novel, Ohlin’s characters remain inside one another’s heads, and their stories have parallels and connections that they may never know about–although the reader, having that inside vantage point, will want to find them. Inside is a quiet novel, populated with beautifully-drawn, complex characters that get inside the heart as well as the head.

Rating: 4/5

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