Release Date: July 26th, 2011
Publisher: Random House Canada
Buy It: Book Depository
Anna, Mike's beautiful and self-possessed wife, begins to mangle her sentences as a result of a brain aneurysm that could kill her at any moment. In his panic to show his wife that she has been his entire universe, will Mike finally confess all the ways in which he rebelled against her power over him, the way he betrayed her?Vital Signs is a short novel but Tessa McWatt manages to say a lot, in a quiet and thought-provoking way. What is happening to Anna is terrifying, but the book makes the reader think, is it really so bad for Anna or it is worse for her husband? These sort of questions and the consequences of diseases that impact the mind on marriage reminded me of Still Alice by Lisa Genova in the moving way that the novel tackles them. In a way, Mike often seems more concerned about himself even while caring for his wife- he worries about his own guilt as opposed to what telling Anna the truth may do to her. Not that he shouldn't be honest, but as the book shows, not everything is always what it seems, including a happy marriage.
The relationships between Mike and Anna and their children was also interesting and I think that part also reminded me of Still Alice because McWatt shows how three different personalities may react to the same circumstances. I found the story of the middle daughter, Charlotte, who is strong and stubborn but very concerned with appearance particularly touching. Mike himself is not a likable individual but his story is an emotional one. Although I read the book nearly two months ago, I stand by my first notes after finishing when I made an odd comparison of Vital Signs as being what happens when Genova's Still Alice meets Hisham Matar's Anatomy of a Disappearance because of the quiet, serious, and thoughtful way it tackles relationships and brain illness.
My only complaint about Vital Signs is the pictograms included throughout. I (sorta) understand what their purpose is but I didn't particularly appreciate them and found their occurrence fairly random and prone to disrupting the flow of the book. Maybe they would have had more impact for a more visual person but I found them distracting.
Vital Signs is a powerful story with profound character depth, and although it is the first book I have read by McWatt her subtle, intelligent, and thoughtful writing has gotten my attention and I will certainly be reading more by this talented Canadian author in the future.