Find Me is set in a version of America not too different from our own, where memories—those we experience and those we create—have power over life and death. Joy, a former foster kid who has no one and nothing to lose, has a unique immunity to the memory-loss epidemic sweeping the nation. Her blood could hold the key to a cure, or at least that’s what they told her when she signed up to join 149 other immune individuals at a former psychiatric hospital in Kansas.
As evidence of van den Berg’s origins as a successful short story writer, she seamlessly braids together numerous narrative strands, including Joy’s past memories, news of the world outside the Hospital, and the events that occur inside its walls, too. Van den Berg’s writes like a painter, skillfully hiding the structure of the novel beneath layers of exposition and subtle shades of detail that bring the story to life. I found it difficult to put the novel down because each chapter bled into the next and there was never a good stopping point. I stayed up past midnight on more than one occasion to keep reading.
Find Me is divided into two sections, Book 1, where the main character Joy is confined to the Hospital during the memory-loss epidemic, and Book 2, where she escapes the Hospital and goes in search of the mother who abandoned her as a baby.
I found Book 1 to be the more compelling of the two. There was a sense of inevitability hanging over all of the patients in the Hospital who live in a kind of holding pattern. In the Hospital, patients with the memory-loss immunity are tested daily, but no one is really working on a cure. Each “survivor” waits for signs of fatal memory-loss to present themselves or for the time on their contracts to run out. This “ticking clock” is ever present in the thoughts and actions of the Hospital patients, driving some to rebel against the doctors and nurses, while others quietly plan their escape into the frozen winter landscape that surrounds the Hospital.
Joy’s relationships with her Floor mates reveal a lot about her character. Despite the sexual and psychological abuse she suffered as a child, she longs for the comfort and security of a romantic relationship with her roommate. Even after she learns that Louis will inevitably die from the memory-loss virus, she clings desperately to him more out of a sudden fear of loneliness than from real love. Joy is also protective of the young orphan boys who live in the room next door, perhaps because she understands what it is like to be parentless and adrift in the world at such a young age.
The novel has no real antagonist–just a faceless epidemic that devours the memories of its victims before killing them. However, Dr. Bek, the man who runs the Hospital, makes an interesting anti-hero. Toward the end of Book 1, we discover that Dr. Bek has lied to all of the patients in order to get them into the Hospital and keep them there. Though his actions would be frowned upon by medical review boards everywhere, his motives—to discover a psychological cure for the epidemic– are well intentioned. Of course, later the reader wonders if Dr. Bek’s actions did more harm than good when we discover that all of the patients in the Hospital were found dead several weeks after Joy’s escape. Did Dr. Bek lose hope in his experiment and cut his losses? Or did the patients fall prey to the same micro-epidemic of suicides that was sweeping the country post-recovery? Perhaps only van den Berg will ever know.
Book 2 follows Joy as she travels from Kansas to Florida, searching for her mother. At this point in the novel, the narration becomes a bit more disjointed and disoriented, reflecting Joy’s attempts to reacclimatize herself to the world outside the Hospital’s walls. She was never very worldly before the epidemic, so now her journey feels like one of self-discovery, as much as mother-recovery. At one point,
Joy reunites with her foster brother, Marcus, on a bus. Though I was glad Joy finally had another soul to share her journey, I found Marcus’s reappearance entirely too coincidental and for several chapters I wondered if he was really there or if he was simply some figment of Joy’s imagination. It didn’t help that he is always described as wearing a rabbit mask.
The second half of the novel lacks the sense of immediacy and inevitability that characterized the first part of the book. Joy has been dreaming about her mother and planning to find her for months, but now that she is free and she has the opportunity, it feels as though she takes every opportunity to take a bus going in the wrong direction, leading her farther from Key West and her mother.
My least favorite part of Book 2 was the section with Darcie and Nelson at the Mansion. There is something unsettling about the angel-winged Darcie and the mad scientist Nelson from the moment Joy and Marcus step into their dilapidated home. The reader feels that Darcie and Nelson are hiding something more than a trap door. I started to question Joy’s motivations, wondering why they stayed so long, and I was constantly worried about Marcus, for fear that he would end up as one of Nelson’s experiments.
Though we are not privy to Joy’s reunion with her mother, if it takes place at all, there is a sense of closure and optimism at the novel’s close. Joy survives the memory-loss epidemic, even managing to fill in the gaps in her earliest memories, and she also makes it through the subsequent wave of hopelessness and suicide that sweeps the country post-recovery. The reader feels that Joy will find some kind of closure with her mother, and create a new life for herself with Marcus and her baby. Through her traumatic experiences and loss, Joy emerges from the other side of the storm stronger and ready to take on her next challenge.
Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. She has written two award-winning collections of short stories, WHAT THE WORLD WILL LOOK LIKE WHEN ALL THE WATER LEAVES US (Dzanc Books, 2009) and THE ISLE OF YOUTH (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013). FIND ME (FSG, 2015) is her first novel. The recipient of a 2014 O. Henry Award and The Bard Fiction Prize, Laura lives in the Boston area and is a Writer-in-Residence at Bard College.
You can follow Laura on Twitter at @Lvandenberg.