PERfunctory AfFECTION by Kim Harrison
Three years ago Meg, a talented artist who also works as a university art instructor, was in a bad car accident. She was driving and her boyfriend, the passenger, was badly injured. Since then she’s dealt with PTSD, high levels of anxiety, and overwhelming guilt. She has also had trouble recovering after her mother’s death and this has led to depression. Meg is pretty messed up and has trouble teaching her classes, making friends, and coping with life in general.
As the novella opens, Meg’s psychiatrist has put her in an experimental drug study. Almost immediately, Meg feels much, much better, almost suspiciously so. Within days of starting the new medication, Meg has even made some new friends, something that had previously been all but impossible. Her boyfriend, though, suspects the drug causes hallucinations and delusions and that Meg has too quickly become wholly dependent on it. Then a strange young man starts following Meg and warning her about her new friends as well as her psychiatrist and the drug. Meg gets increasingly confused and she’s not sure who she can trust.
PERfunctory AfFECTION (2019) is a twisty and suspenseful psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator. For a very long time, there are no fantasy elements to it at all, except, of course, for the existence of the miracle drug that immediately and successfully treats anxiety and depression and outperforms pretty much everything available today, something we found unlikely and annoyingly simplistic.
Kat was interested to see where the story was going, Terry less so. Unfortunately, none of Kim Harrison’s characters felt real to either of us and we disliked every single one them. Meg is a bit sympathetic, but she’s extremely immature and completely lacks any self-awareness; her anxiety is so crippling, even after three years of therapy, that she drinks sugary coffee drinks that disgust her because she can’t muster up the courage to admit to her new friend that she prefers her coffee black. We couldn’t stand Meg. Or her friends. And her therapist should have been sued for malpractice a long time ago.
The college campus, and Meg’s job as an instructor, didn’t feel real at all. There are several examples we could list but probably the one that bugged us most was when Meg gives her class a 20-minute break so she can visit her psychiatrist during class. She goes out to the parking lot (right outside the classroom?), gets in her car and drives to her psychiatrist’s office (on campus, which is weird) and parks right outside her psychiatrist’s office. We have never been on a college campus where driving and parking were so easy.
There are other odd things about the campus, too, such as the roving popcorn vendor and affordable on-campus apartments that are still empty after the semester starts. Meg’s apartment is almost hilariously ugly, decorated only in shades of brown. What artist would live in such a place for years on end, regardless of her degree of depression? Even the shopping mall feels more like one’s idealized version of such a place, not a real spot where shoppers can pick up throw pillows. Maybe all of these oddities can be explained by Meg’s misperceptions, but it didn’t seem like that was Harrison’s intent.
Worst of all, the plot is unbelievable. For example, Meg’s psychiatrist was utterly unethical. In real life she would have lost her license, and no reputable pharmaceutical company would ever have worked with her. Meg, who is supposedly so shy and reserved that she can’t hold a conversation with a stranger, agrees to move in with a couple of people within 48 hours of meeting them, only a few days after she begins her new drug regimen, which is just as unbelievable as the notion that a stranger would make such an offer. There were so many little places where we thought, “That wouldn’t really happen that way,” making the suspension of disbelief impossible.
PERfunctory AfFECTION’s ending is not conclusive. There almost has to be a sequel, if only to explain the fantastical element that comes along only in the final third of the story. Kat was ready to drop Meg’s story until there came a big reveal in the last 30 minutes of the 6.5 hour-long audiobook version she listened to; she is willing to give the sequel a try, if only to find out what happens next. Terry will wait for Kat’s review before she gives up another evening to this story.
Tantor Audio’s edition is nicely narrated by Traci Odom.