Sometimes a book hits you in odd ways, and Lisa Unger's latest, Under My Skin, did that very thing for me.
Two years ago, I started taking Lexapro for mood swings that my doctor thought was either menopause-related or "adjustment issues" relating to my job. All was good for a while, but after a few months I started having a really odd side effect. So odd, in fact, I didn't immediately realize it was a side effect: I was not wholly connected to reality. As in, I would wake up from dreams believing they'd really happened, and even when I knew, logically, they hadn't happened, I couldn't always convince myself they hadn't. I found myself missing blocks of time, only remembering when someone else talked about an event we'd attended together.
It was when I found myself sobbing about my father's violent death — to my very-much-alive and very-much-chagrined father — that my mother gently suggested perhaps I wasn't having the psychotic break I thought I was; perhaps, she suggested, the medication was altering my reality.
Welcome to Poppy's world. After someone brutally murdered her husband while he took a run through Riverside Park, Poppy's kind of lost the thread. Her memory of the days following the murder are, at first, simply gone. As the story progresses, things filter back in, but nothing makes sense.
It's not a real secret that the anti-anxiety meds her doctor — and her best friend — give her blur her realities and dreams, but Poppy has such a severely fragmented reality set following a traumatic event that it's hard to believe that's the only reason she can't recall what happened. And perhaps it isn't — studies on the brain's ability to voluntarily suppress traumatic memories show that yes, Freud was right — that's a thing we do.
The story in Under My Skin far surpasses a personal experience with the horrid — and rare — side effects of one anti-anxiety drug, but the realities of a woman struggling with reality definitely made this book even more chilling.
While Poppy's struggle with reality takes center stage, what makes Under My Skin a truly compelling read is the way Unger weaves a murder mystery through the threads of memory and experience. The book reminded me simultaneously of V.C. Andrews' My Sweet Audrina and Lee Irby's Unreliable. Like Andrews, Unger tells a tale of fragmented memory and realities known only as memory. Fortunately for readers, that's where the similarities to Audrina end. Like Irby, readers will spend a goodly bit of the book wondering how much to trust the narrator. Unlike Irby, Unger doesn't blow up the narrative of the unreliable narrator, a convention that certainly would have failed here. Poppy knows she's unreliable and wants to be less so.
That's one of the things that endears Under My Skin to readers: the characters. While the ending satisfies on many levels, saying goodbye to the characters makes it hard to turn the last page.
We will have an interview with Unger, who lives in Clearwater, closer to the release. No doubt this local author will also have some signings around Tampa Bay; we promise to keep you up-to-date on those, too.