Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow

I finished this book almost two weeks ago and struggled for those two weeks wondering what I would write about this novel, how I would rate it and what I actually think about it on a personal level. The one thing I can say with certainty before I commence the review is that a reader will either love or hate this book. There is no in between.

The story is told from the point of view on Andrew, college professor who teaches cognitive science and who has an interest in the workings of the brain. He speaks throughout the book to an unknown, unnamed interviewer who may be a psychiatrist or doctor. His voice is only infrequently heard when he asks clarifying questions – questions which are rarely or never answered with any clarity at all.

Andrew tells his own life story. He interprets his life in terms of having bad luck or being the creator of bad experiences that befall him and those around him. Beyond saying this, there is really no possible way to describe the story without spoiling it and the book itself is not long. So the following are observations that will help you decide whether this book is for you or not.

The idea is that the narrations we create for ourselves are unreliable and tainted by our own physical shortcomings with regard to our brains. Is what we remember actually accurate as to the events of our life? What role does brain chemistry, brain structure and science play? Can anything science has really measure with any accuracy or reliability the human experience which itself is built on immeasurables like love, faith, sadness, happiness and a host of other emotions?

This is not a typical Doctorow novel with historical figures although there are historical events that do play a part in this story. Every action, every part of the story is seen only through Andrew’s eyes and heard only through Andrew’s narration. There is not a lot of scope to explore as a reader other viewpoints so throughout the book, you constantly have to ask yourself Is this the truth? Or only Andrew’s truth? Is there really any truth other than our own when telling our life story? How do others perceive it who feel they have pertinent truths to our life story? Ultimately, the book has a reader asking themselves a lot of questions and there are no real answers.

I think people who are scientifically minded will enjoy the book because it will challenge what they believe science can prove. I think those who base their beliefs on faith will be challenged because there are scientific facts that do explain certain things but neither viewpoint can explain it all.

As for my own rating…I am a navel gazer so books that resound with me tend to be owns where introspection continue after I finish the book. I give this book 3 ½ stars. The ideas are better than the actual story. Book clubs may find it a good discussion generator but it will be a discussion less about the book and more about the questions it raises. There are lots of Doctorow books that offer a much better and richer look at what this author is capable of writing.


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