Simon is a psychiatrist, clinical, cold, professional, and distant. He has few friends for all that he is respected as a lecturer and teacher, and his life is slowly falling apart around him. The young woman who has been like a sister to him, who has lived with him for several years while he helped her recover from the horrific injuries her father gave her, is leaving for a place of her own. His best friend is getting married and Simon isn’t certain he even likes Mike, let along trusts him with Lukas’s heart. Simon is drinking too much, brooding too much, forgetting to eat…
Somehow he manages to keep putting one foot in front of the other, moving from today into tomorrow when all he wants to do is exist in his memories of the past. A past where he wasn’t alone and abandoned, but had love and beauty and laughter in his life. Love that vanished when Matej disappeared into the night, leaving both Simon and Matej’s sister behind. With Marta now leaving, Simon has nothing left of the young man who somehow became Simon’s whole world.
It’s been more than three years. Some days it feels like he’s been gone forever. Some days I wake up and reach beside me expecting him to be there.
The story takes place in Prague, a city filled with ghosts and beauty and history. The city is very much another character in this book, lurking over the shoulders of the characters. The author was born in Czechoslovakia before moving to Sweden and I think it really shows in the writing, which is spare, elegant, and just beautiful. I’d quote a few of my favorite passages, but it would be easier if you just read the story.
The sad man in the white coat is Simon, a broken man slowly falling apart. The largest portion of the book, and the part with the greatest impact, is his character study. Simon’s family is distant, and while they are not estranged, there is no warmth or closeness between them and their son. His mother is resigned to Simon as he is, though she prays for him to change his mind and even offers to send him to for therapy. His father barely glances at him and never, in the course of the book, says a word to him. Ever dutiful, Simon visits once a year, calls once a year, and it’s unpleasant for all of them.
His life is quiet, filled with work and home and — with Marta gone — endless periods of quiet and lonliness. Drinking becomes a large part of Simon’s life, followed by frantic bursts of cleaning out apartment, ridding himself of thing he no longer wants or needs. Quiet moments of yet more drinking are followed by grimly manic days of stripping the wallpaper and painting the apartment. Bit by bit he shuts himself away from his friends. Even his attempt at a new boyfriend — as opposed to a one-night stand — a last-ditch effort to fill the void in his life and the silence that surrounds him, ends up with the realization that this pleasant young man can never, will never match Matej.
The sadness flowed through Simon’s veins slow and thick like mud. He thought maybe his limbs would break under the weight of his desperate longing. When something hurt this much, there had to be some tangible consequence to it. Simon eyed his arms and legs half expecting blood to start seeping through fabric. But nothing showed on the outside. He was embarrassingly healthy and intact.
The aching sorrow, the affecting writing, the fact that Simon — as a psychiatrist — knows the signs and the symptoms, knows what’s happening to him even as he tries not to. After a visit to the hospital, Simon is forced to accept that he needs help and asks for it.
To show us how it was that Simon had come to be so devestated by Matej’s loss we had to meet the young man, a student at the college where Simon taught. We see their first date, their first night together where Simon, for the first time in five years, allowed himself to bottom. Previous encounters left him feeling violated and used and dirty, but Matej made him feel… loved, vulnerable, cherished. Matej made him happy, and not just in bed. But their relationship was confined to the apartment, to the bedroom because of two factors: A gay relationship during a time when such things were looked down upon and the fact that Matej was his student, which could cost Simon his job. It left Matej feeling as if Simon only wanted him for his body while Simon was desperate to treasure and protect what they had between then, keeping it safe from anyone and everyone else.
They both had trust issues. They were greedy cowards when it came to their emotions, gathering and hiding them away like a junkie’s secret stash.
Matej’s father was abusive, but only to Mat. He never once laid a hand upon his daughter and neither of them let her know how bad it was between them. Simon was his only escape and his only refuge, a person to love him, a place to feel safe, and Simon filled the void of both father and lover. He was strong, dependable, someone who could support Mat when he needed it. But when Mat needed him, at a time when he was most vulnerable, Simon didn’t come through. Mat needed a place to live, a place for both himself and his sister away from his father, but Simon — with his own demons and uncertainties and unwilling to put any stress on the fragile thing between them — didn’t offer his own apartment. He didn’t want to push, or make Mat feel obligated to say yes when he’d rather say no, and so Mat was left to deal with a situation that had no happy outcome.
We never really get to know Matej or what he thinks about Simon. What little we do see is in the rough and truncated third part of this book. He sacrificed so much for his sister and then abandoned her when she needed him the most, leaving her unconscious in the hospital, and we’re never given much closure on that. When Matej is finally face to face with Simon, Simon… isn’t thrilled. He isn’t happy, he isn’t joyful. He’s angry. Later there’s a party, and drinking, and a drunken Simon confesses he’s still in love — has always been in love. And just like that the conflict is gone. That combined with Simon’s avowal that Matej can make the depression go away and he doesn’t need the pills prescribed to him by his own psychiatrist feels suitably romantic but suitably wrong. The final third of this book takes what could have been a tragic, achingly melancholy story into something trite.
I loved the writing, I love Simon, I loved the way the author was able to make me feel Simon’s pain and confusion and sorrow. But the ending didn’t work for me. Matej through the first half of the book is a cypher and a phantom; in the third part of the book he’s not much better, for all that we’re introduced to his point of view. With all that was invested in Simon by both the author and the reader (me), I felt that Simon deserved more than this token prince charming to wake him out of his depression.