Arts & Entertainment
A tale of mental illness, family homelessness and romance
BOOK REVIEW: Outside the Lines - by Amy Hatvany
What’s your responsibility if a member of your family is homeless? What if giving him a home is not an option?
That’s a central theme in Amy Hatvany’s new novel, “Outside the Lines,” in which Eden West, now 32, decides to look for her mentally ill father, David, who disappeared when she was 10. Her only clues to his whereabouts are the letters she got from him when she was 20. They suggested he’d been living on the streets.
Despite the noirish beginning — Eden visits the morgue to see if a corpse there is her father — the novel is more romance than thriller. Eden starts volunteering at a homeless shelter, hoping someone there will know her dad, and she falls in love with the director, Jack Baker. The result is a story with a serious message sugarcoated in a cast of characters who predictably are trying their best to be good people. Even her father David is ultimately trying to find ways to express his parental love while remaining true to himself.
Perhaps the sugarcoating is a good thing. Perhaps Hatvany is trying to reach an audience that wouldn’t read a story about a serious social problem unless it is swathed in a plot that lets Eden find true love at last. Georgia, Eden’s best friend and a professional life coach, summarizes Eden’s problem with men: “It’s like you’ve pushed down the pain you felt over your dad disappearing, shoving it into the nooks and crannies of your heart, and now there’s no room for anybody else. … Keep looking for your dad.” She likens it to worrying over a scab or an old sore. “It ain’t pretty and it hurts like a bitch, but you’re not going to heal until you do.”
Other motivations in the novel also tend to be simple. Jack Baker threw over his job as an executive in his dad’s company to do social service work because of guilt: In high school he’d been unable to stop his martial arts buddies from beating up a panhandler. And while David is wrestling with deeper issues — he’s apparently bipolar and possibly schizophrenic — he gets the reader’s sympathy as it becomes clear that his choices are stark. He can either be the creative artist he’s meant to be, even though it means staying off his meds and self-medicating with alcohol, or he can live a life on medication meaning he can’t paint and he won’t feel like himself.
The most intense scenes are flashbacks to Eden’s childhood, when David’s mental illness worsened and Eden eventually walked in on him cutting his wrists.
The scenes in the near-present (2010), by contrast, are a likable, light read. Hatvany’s ultimate message is that we need to accept people as they are, rather than trying to fix them. The message is reinforced as her friend Georgia has a fling with Eden’s much younger brother and one of the workers at the shelter comes out as a lesbian. In the same way, Hatvany is saying David should be accepted as leading the life that he needs.
There are a few problems with the book. One is minor: Hatvany is a bit careless with her scenes and plotting: A Seattle resident, she should know better than to place Pine Street, where Jack has his homeless shelter, in close proximity to Pioneer Square. Worse, she shouldn’t have Eden going to an apartment building at the address on the letters her father sent her, given that 12 years earlier she had angrily thrown those letters away.
More important are the questions left unaddressed. It’s all very well to say that we should accept David’s way of dealing with his mental illness. But something still rankles. Eden resolves her issues with men, finds true love, and opens the restaurant she’s always dreamed of owning. Jack, the rich man’s son, has the money to run his homeless shelter the way he wants to. But David, the talented painter, is still selling his work outside the Portland train station for enough money to buy booze and occasionally to have a bed to sleep in. Even in an “I’m OK, you’re OK” universe, should refusal to treat your mental illness mean you won’t have a roof over your head?
Hatvany comes closest to questioning the institutional structure that deprives the mentally ill of meaningful choice when David rages internally after seeing a doctor who had already decided how to treat him. “Not one of them said, ‘David, do you want to be on lithium?’”
Hatvany implies that once Eden is assured her father loves her, even if he can’t lead a normal life, she’s freed to pursue her own life without needing to see him again. Having known people with family members who were homeless in this way, though, it’s clear to me that the pain never really goes away.
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