By Kirsten Cappy

Unlikely love story woven from three lives
“Love in the Asylum,” by Lisa Carey; William Morrow; hardcover, $24.95

When Alba sees Oscar being admitted into the Abenaki Hospital, she finds that she is a bit jealous. At age 25, Alba has been through the admission office of the mental hospital 10 times, each time on the downward spiral of her bipolar disorder. Alba wishes she were Oscar, coming to the hospital for the first time, filled with a hope of recovery. She muses that after three or four returns to Abenaki, “You suspect that it is you – not the world that is deranged.”

Lisa Carey’s wonderful novel, “Love in the Asylum,” profiles three such “deranged” characters in a Maine mental and drug rehab facility. Alba, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, goes from highs where she writes brilliant children’s novels to lows where she tries to take her own life. She is the caustic, resentful princess of the Abenaki Hospital, spending her medicated days “trying to stir up enthusiasm for rejoining the world.”

Sharing the novel’s alternating narration is Oscar, admitted to Abenaki for a heroin addiction. Oscar’s cliché denial that he has a drug problem is rounded out by his humorous self-ridicule and unfolding life story. Our first introduction to his boyish wit is reading the transcript of his admitting questionnaire. When asked about drug frequency he responds with scribbled answers like “no more than your average housewife.”


On their first meeting, Alba aggressively asks Oscar, “Are you a junkie?” Oscar replies, “Why? Are you a lunatic?” These are the labels they live with and these are the stereotypes they taunt each other with as they form what Oscar calls a relationship of “infatuated dislike.” This dislike is, of course, attraction, and their barbed exchanges and timid advances make for a suspenseful and satisfying love story.

And this is a love story. It is a love story between two unlikely people in the most unlikely of places. Alba and Oscar meet on the lawn each day, one of the few times the “junkies” and “lunatics” are allowed to intermingle. Their “tenders” are never more than a few yards away reporting their actions over walkie-talkies. Alba and Oscar are both in tenuous mental states. Can love be redemptive and healing or is it an unhealthy delusion?

Mary, the third character of the novel, provides a historical perspective on the hospital itself and the methods of treating mental disorders.

We hear Mary’s narrative in the form of letters she wrote to her son from 1933 to 1941 while institutionalized. Alba finds these letters written on the flyleaves of hospital library books.

From these letters, we learn that Mary was an Abenaki Indian and considered a shaman by her family for her “fits” and her ability in those fits to see and heal the broken souls of the people around her. The novel intentionally never concludes whether Mary was a schizophrenic or truly a native healer. Her skills at healing her fellow female residents in the 1930s are in stark comparison to the healing regimen of the hospital. In chilling detail, Mary describes water treatments and electric shock therapy.

In comparison to Mary’s experience, Alba and Oscar are receiving the best of care. But like Mary, their treatment rankles them because they fear that it will take away, alternatively, the creativity and escape they cherish. In the end, Mary’s story, told to Alba in letters, may break Alba free of her cycle of self-abuse and institutionalization. And she may just take sweet, “deranged” Oscar with her.

Kirsten Cappy is a bookseller in Portland.

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