Recommended by Sharon Wong
Who knew psychologists doubled as detectives? This might not be immediately apparent, but it does make sense when you strip the profession to its basest elements. After all, a large part of the trade is picking up clues from disparate narratives and shattered psyches to weave a coherent whole. Katherine Middlebrook, the protagonist of Susan Salluce’s novel Out of Breath, does just this when she is presented with one of the most challenging cases in her career history. Like many hard-boiled sleuths, Katherine runs the risk of emotional entanglement with the case, upping the suspense and giving us valuable insight into the psychologist’s bane, Compassion Fatigue.
Seth and Alyssa seem like the perfect Northern Californian couple. They are good-looking, well integrated into the community, blessed with two daughters, Daisy and Nevaeh. However, when Nevaeh perishes in a tragic accident, longstanding marital issues morph into heinous accusations and toxic distrust. Enter Dr. Middlebrook, who takes on the task of reuniting the troubled couple, despite her own harrowing experience of losing a child.
Susan Salluce combines emotional truth with unpretentious prose, making this an easy book to breeze through, but also bringing with it some truly beautiful moments. A particular description that caught my eye was of a stained glass window of Jesus and His crown of thorns, which Salluce describes as dripping with blood, thanks to torrential rain pour outside. While these visual cues were tiny, they were what injected scenes with just the right dose of tension or emotional resonance.
I was compelled by the authentic psychological depth that lay at the core of every interaction, impulse, and event as the characters handled their grief. As someone experienced with counseling herself, Salluce has a profound understanding of therapeutic processes, coping mechanisms, and grief that translates well into her fictive scenario. In general, many of the reactions, counseling methods and dilemmas come across as believable clues that lead to a satisfying finale. Moreover, she has a knack for combining her expertise with a good dose of compassion, making her characters human beings rather than case studies. Katherine is immediately sympathetic and relatable; I could just about feel the tension simmering beneath her desire to unravel the emotional mess. Seth is easily my favorite character. He is earnest, selfish, remorseful, suave and heroic all at once; I can’t think of a moment when I wasn’t sharing his pain or rooting for him all the way.
Out of Breath navigates its readers through a dense psychological landscape, methodically unraveling its entanglements and providing plenty of pathos the whole time. I would recommend saving it for a foggy day by the coast, when all you want to do is stay in and do some serious ruminating.