In no way am I comparing Andrea Seigel's new novel to the insipid song "Love in an Elevator," but I found myself warbling "Love in an Infirmary" to the same Aerosmith tune repeatedly while reading To Feel Stuff. It's one of those books compelling enough to stick in my mind even when I wasn't reading it—enough so that I sometimes continued with, "livin' it up when my health's goin' down...."
To Feel Stuff is the story of Elodie, a student and infirmary live-in at Brown University who is host to myriad ailments (fibromyalgia, chicken pox, tuberculosis, encephalitis). Though she is the novel's core, Elodie is not the only narrator. The story is also told by two other characters: Dr. Mark Kirschling, a professor with high career aspirations who takes on Elodie's multiple cases; and Chess Hunter, a fellow student and temporary infirmary resident with whom Elodie has an ardent affair.
Seigel's narrative device is shrewd, with Kirschling's sections appearing as an article in the Journal of Parapsychology, through which necessary medical history is imparted; but the book's heart is conveyed through the communication between Elodie and Chess via personal stationary (or, in Elodie's case, sheets from a Paxil notepad). Epistolary storytelling is often unconvincing, and here—with dialogue comprising long sections of the letters—it's no different. Seigel makes the premise work, though—the stories within the story are too poetic to be disregarded as contrived.
The premise of a love story in an infirmary was engrossing, but when the plot ventured into paranormal realms, I became nervous. Seigel maintains a steady pace throughout, though, and much to my relief, keeps the story engaging, relevant, and clever.
Andrea Seigel's age and relative precocity often come up in reviews of her work. Though I hoped not to count myself among those who gape at her youth (26, and already has two published novels under her belt), I can't help join the legions. Many authors would have been content to have To Feel Stuff only represent themes of love and sickness. It's to her enormous credit that Seigel's book also tackles the tricky subject of living it up when things are going down.