Finding Alice is an acceptable book. Nothing terrible will happen if you read it, but there is an opportunity cost because the odds are that if you do not read Finding Alice, you will read a better book.
Alice is the narrator of our book, a book written in the first person present tense. The author, Melody Carlson, is a competent writer, competent enough that writing in the first person present won’t make you throw the book across the room. It’s possible that makes the book go faster and that’s a good thing.
Alice is a senior in college and in her final semester, she becomes schizophrenic. She is quickly discovered, diagnosed and shipped off to a psychiatric warehouse. In a moment of luck, she escapes and finds herself on the streets of Portland where she eventually falls into the loving kindness of the Cat Lady and from there finds a way back. This is the story of her journey.
I did not hate this book, but while reading it, I was acutely aware that I could be reading something better. There was something facile and unrealistic about Alice and her experience with schizophrenia and with homelessness. Yes, she was cold, she was hungry, she was ill, she considered suicide, but she was also cared for by strangers. She only once came close to being assaulted and was rescued by homeless friends.
People in need were able to get access to services. There were always enough beds, enough places. In one of the more honest scenes, her gay homeless friend explains why he can’t go to the Salvation Army for a warm place to sleep, noting they deny services to people who are gay. But in one of the more common scenes, she is able to find him an immediate place where they serve gay teens. Access to in-patient mental health care is also far too easily accessible and cost never seems to be a consideration. I think of people reading this book and walking away thinking that these services are really that easy to get and regret the consequences of such a pollyanna-isa view of the safety net for the mentally ill and the homeless.
This all takes place in Portland, a city where a federal investigation had found Portland police engaged in a pattern of excessive force against people suffering from mental illness and where the city has consistently resisted and dragged its heels on coming to terms with its neglect and abuse of the mentally ill.
This is an “inspirational” book and Christian theology is present throughout the story. However, it is a loving and inclusionary theology which is in stark contrast to the fundamentalist rigidity of the Christianity that Alice was raised in and which her mother is still an adherent. This allows the book to show three responses to mental illness, the fundamentalist casting out of demons, the traditional treatment of drugs and locking them up for safekeeping, and the progressive alternative that saves Alice through retraining her mind and, of course, through faith. Faith, thankfully, is not presented as the cure, merely as a source of strength and comfort as any belief system may be.
I did not hate this book. However, I cannot recommend it. It was too facile. Everything was far too easy and I think it gave a highly sanitized version of schizophrenia and homelessness. The main reason, though, I do not recommend it is because there are far too many really great books to spend a day with a mediocre one.