14 February 2009

Book Review: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

What if one night, you come back to your house and find that a doppelganger has taken over the life of your wife? What if there is this woman, who looks like your wife, smells like your wife, talks like your wife, sounds like your wife, is in your house, and yet you are fully convinced that that is an impostor, and your wife was taken away by some unknown force, some unknown entity, and replaced with this doppelganger?

That is the premise that this debut novel of author Rivka Galchen presents to the reader. From the very start, it captivates the reader that dares open and read the first chapter. It tells the tale of psychiatrist Dr. Leo Liebenstein, and his Argentine wife, Rema. Leo is convinced that one night, the woman that he sees in his apartment in New York is not his wife, but a doppelganger, which he calls a simulacrum of his wife. He then goes ahead to find his wife, bringing him to the Patagonia region of Argentina.

Add to that a schizoid patient of Leo by the name of Harvey, who believes that he receives secret messages from a secret meteorological organization called Royal Academy of Meteorology, with instructions on how to manipulate the weather, so that they can counter the efforts of the renegade group called "The 49". As the novel progresses, the reader is led into this maze of a psychological thriller, because the question of reality and trust with the first-person narrative is put into the test more and more. More and more the reader is led to question whether the first-person narrative of Leo is indeed what is real or not.

Of course, not all of this is a cliffhanging thriller. There are some comedic effects, such as the episode when Leo meditates on the English-translated menu of the cafe in El Calafate, in which the English menu had drinks that had names such as Bloody Girl and Bloody Great, which was a mistranslation of Sangria Chica and Sangria Grande. I had been giggling and laughing as I was reading this book. It is funny, yet it tackles serious issues as well, such as the philosophy of the mind and existentialism. If it were made into a movie, I would see this as something that Charlie Kaufman would be doing.

Many critics had commented that this book was especially risky due to the fact that it used a certain literary technique of using a real character as a character in the book. There is this character, named Tzvi Gal-Chen who appears in the book, apparently as someone who belongs to the Royal Academy of Meteorology, and is portrayed as communicating with Harvey and Leo throughout the book. In reality, Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen is the author's real father, who happens to be indeed a meteorologist by profession, who passed away a decade ago. Indeed, modeling a character based on a true figure is in a way, risky, due to the preconceived notions that come up with it, but the book still carries through. I do believe this is one of the most original books that I read recently. Based on my book, it'll pass with flying colors.

See my other book reviews here.

(Ambassade du Luxembourg, from my Embassy Row Series)


  1. I wish I had the energy to read as much as you do !

  2. Sidney,

    Not that I don't have anything else to do aside from read, but reading is my way of escaping reality for a temporary period.

  3. Creepy! I didn't even know that there was such a term for that... doppelganger. I'd have nightmares sometimes of a doppelganger taking over MY life. How could I prove to all that I'm the REAL Toe?

  4. Toe,

    Hmmmm, maybe you could ask your significant other whether he noticed anything different?