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FICTION

Counting on Love

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, February 1, 2009

ADDITION

By Toni Jordan

This Story

Morrow. 260 pp. $24.99

People thought Nikola Tesla was crazy in the 1930s when he speculated about time travel, but now, 50 years after his death, the eccentric inventor has started reappearing in comic novels, so maybe he's having the last laugh. In Samantha Hunt's The Invention of Everything Else, Tesla was an object of fascination for a maid at the New Yorker hotel, where he spent the last years of his life. And here comes another first novel, this one from Australia, about a woman who entertains racy fantasies about Tesla every night. Who knew the obsessive-compulsive Serbian genius was so sexy?

Grace Vandenburg, the modern-day heroine of Toni Jordan's Addition, knows she'll never meet her OCD idol, but she's kept an 1885 photo of Tesla next to her bed for 20 years, and she recites the events of his bizarre life in sympathetic detail. "He'd understand me," she says, which is probably true and definitely sad. At 35, Grace is alone and lonely. She's been hospitalized in a psych ward, was treated unsuccessfully and now lives on a disability pension. Traumatized by an accident when she was 8, Grace began counting everything around her, until now that's all she thinks about as she goes through her small, strict routines: the letters in everyone's names, the windows on the houses she passes, the stripes on her sheets, the shelves in the grocery store, her footsteps, each mouthful of carefully cut food, her teeth, the bristles on her brush -- on and on the mania goes, consuming her whole life in a Sisyphean task of enumeration that keeps her anxiety barely under control. "Life would be different if I didn't count," Grace admits. "But without it the world would be too big and too changeable. An endless void. I'd be lost all the time. I'd be overwhelmed."

Jordan conveys a clear sense of the devastation this mental condition can wreak, but the tone of her novel is usually no darker than an episode of "Monk." For all her crippling anxieties and obsessive counting, Grace is a pretty hilarious narrator, a regular stand-up comedian with witty comebacks and sarcastic quips. In fact, although schizophrenia isn't one of Grace's problems, it may be one of the novel's flaws. Straitjacketed in the form of a light romantic comedy, Addition also tries to portray the anguish of OCD while delivering an attack on psychotropic drugs. Not surprisingly, the side effects of this literary treatment include periodic clichés and temporary triteness.

Grace's long isolation is broken one day at the grocery store when a handsome Irishman named Seamus O'Reilly engages her in the sort of zippy, flirtatious repartee that might happen if Tina Fey ran into Neil Simon at Costco. Fate intervenes: Grace bumps into Seamus again the next week at a café, and soon they're enjoying mind-blowing sex back in her apartment. (She silently measures every part of his body.) Of course, he's kind and gentle, thoroughly supportive, everything a woman with or without a disabling case of OCD could ever want. "He looks gorgeous. He even smells gorgeous," Grace says. "The crinkles around his eyes look like lots more smiles." When she warns him that she can be a little strange, he reassures her, "I think you've got a lot going on in your head. That's not true of most people I meet." Let me count the ways. . . .

All this is charming; Grace and Seamus are thoroughly endearing characters, and their romance is sweet and fun. But when she finally tells him what's wrong with her, and he urges her back into treatment, the novel's satire turns polemical. Grace's therapist -- an easy target -- speaks in the vapid language of recovery metaphors "like a children's television host," and her fellow patients in group therapy are a wacky collection of abrasive and sycophantic nut cases. Fair enough: Bob Newhart got away with that comedy for years; mental illness is so much funnier than lung cancer. But it's the drugs that Grace starts taking that really come in for vilification. As they reduce her compulsive behavior, these medications also make her lethargic, apathetic, confused, sexless and fat. Such complications from OCD medication aren't unheard of, but in this section of Addition one gets the sense of Tom Cruise stacking the deck against psychotropic drugs.

More troubling is Grace's eventual conclusion that "an obsession is not a weakness. An obsession is what lifts people up, what makes them different from the gray masses." She goes on: "All that matters to doctors now is that we humans become closer to being the same." And so she abandons her therapy and flushes away her drugs, concluding with breathless naiveté, "I prefer both feet on the ground." In the end, she gets a job, she gets her man, and she gets to enjoy her quirky compulsion: "Rain Man" meets "Sex and the City."

Sweet as this may be, it just doesn't compute. Several moving and lengthy sections of Addition impress upon us how debilitating her condition can be. "Bed a hunky Irishman and call me in the morning" isn't a reliable prescription when the case has been diagnosed so convincingly. Jordan might have remembered the fate of Grace's idol: Long before the introduction of effective drug treatments for OCD, Tesla died alone and penniless, germophobic and obsessed with the number 3. That doesn't add up to comedy. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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