At the time of her brother’s death, Helen Moran, the heroine of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s darkly funny debut novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, is “a 32-year-old woman, single, irregularly menstruating, college-educated and partially employed.” Living meagerly in a cramped apartment in New York City, she is devoted to her part-time job caring for troubled young people. When she receives the news that her brother has committed suicide, she is devastated. She orders a black sweater on the internet to be delivered to her parents’ address in Milwaukee and heads home to Wisconsin to discover what’s happened.

In chatty first-person narration, Helen seems at first charmingly offbeat, but soon something—apart from the brother’s tragedy—is worryingly amiss. Is it Helen’s frequent use of the word “adoptive” preceding “brother” and “parents”? Is it the strange logic that she uses to make sense of the world around her? The incongruity of her estrangement from her parents with her fervent sense of filial duty? The baffled reactions that others have to her? Helen is subject to saying and doing outrageous things—like putting all the sympathy flowers in buckets of bleach, or giving drugs to her troubled young people. Increasingly, the novel’s central mystery becomes less about a suicide, and more about how Helen and her brother, both adopted from Korea as infants by parsimonious Midwestern parents, could have become such troubled adults.

To be clear, diagnosing these characters is not the novel’s aim. (Though for you DSM devotees, Cottrell throws out a suggestion at the end.) Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is a riveting, tragicomic examination of a character who understands herself one way—as good, self-sacrificing, pragmatic, helpful—even when no one else around her sees her as such. Helen is particularly moved by a novel about a man who transitions into a woman and then decides to go back to being a man. “I liked stories about people changing their minds and undoing themselves,” she says. She has the likability of a picaresque hero; she’s often an unwitting trickster exposing the shortcomings and absurdities of the society around her. But to Helen herself, she is a classic hero with a great talent for caring for others that will ultimately save the day. In this discrepancy resides much of the novel’s dark humor, but also its deeper and genuinely affecting story.

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
by Patty Yumi Cottrell