Review: Vital Signs, Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt’s Vital Signs begins with an image of the narrator’s wife Anna wearing an electrode cap. She has a brain aneurysm that causes her to mangle her sentences and that endangers her life. The narrator Mike is devastated by his wife’s condition and guilt-ridden over an affair he’d had years ago. He wants to confess.

When I started reading Vital Signs, all I could think of was, this is such a depressing book. I ached for Anna and her inability to express herself. I found the opening scene with Anna wearing the electrode cap and speaking about hummingbirds very painful, and for a book to begin with that image should’ve warned me that this book was just going to get even more depressing.

Still, it’s sadness with sweetness as well. I love hearing about Mike and Anna’s love story, and how their family deals with Anna’s condition. In one of my favourite passages, Mike thinks that perhaps Anna’s nonsensical sentences are her way of exerting control, of perhaps playing a game with her doctors. It’s false hope, of course, but I was moved by his all too palpable need to grasp any bit of hope he can.

I cared about Mike, Anna and their children. The entire time, I wanted more than anything for Mike to decide not to confess his affair. Seriously, with what his wife is going through, what would his confession achieve other than salving his own conscience? If Anna were to be trapped in a world where she can communicate only to herself, I wanted her to hold on to the wonderful memories she’s had with Mike, and not have to deal with the less-than-wonderful truth. I cheered their daughter Charlotte on when Mike sensed she didn’t want him to tell. I wanted Anna to get better, and worried with her family whether surgery was an acceptable risk.

That is why I was so let down by the plot twist near the end of the book. Without giving any details about it, all I can say is that I felt cheated. I felt like it just provided an easy resolution to what was, till then, a gripping plot point. Other than that, I thought Vital Signs is a good book, with a fitting overall ending. It’s a short book, but by no means an easy read.

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