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Is This a Psychiatric Fairy Tale?

June 19, 2012 by Reader's Connection

I overheard a conversation at the Natatorium in 1991. A fellow taking a break between laps was talking to a woman who was doing the same. He said that the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast was okay–the audience was expecting a fairy tale, and it got one–but he thought that The Prince of Tides (Barbara Streisand as a shrink, Nick Nolte experiencing great revelations while in therapy) was ridiculous. That audience was expecting a realistic movie, and it was getting “a psychiatric fairy tale.”
The Schopenhauer CureI just finished reading Irvin D. Yalom’s novel The Schopenhauer Cure, in which psychotherapist Julius Hertzfeld learns that he has cancer. He tells his weekly group that he has roughly a year to live, and of course this changes the group’s dynamics.

Also added to the group is Philip Slate–whom Julius had failed to help years earlier, when Philip was a sexual compulsive, but who claims to have cured himself in the intervening years by reading and internalizing the works of the misanthropic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

I’ve never attended group therapy sessions, so I don’t know if some of the critical praise on my paperback cover (“the world’s first accurate group therapy novel”) is merited; but the author has written a textbook on the subject, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. I raise the question because the book moves like a murder mystery. I couldn’t stop turning the pages. What is one of these characters going to say next? Is this how therapy really works? (There are alternating chapters about the life of Schopenhauer, and those are fascinating, too.)

A big coincidence occurs about halfway through the novel, which the reader isn’t supposed to notice, and about which none of the characters is allowed to speculate in a supernatural mode; and climactic happenings near the end reminded me of what the guy had said at the Natatorium. But no, I don’t think this is a fairy tale, although it may be a genre novel. Call it what you want, it’s an enjoyable read.

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