What do you get when you cross a junkie with a lunatic? No, that's not the lead-in to a bad joke; in fact, it's the premise of a really good novel. The junkie is Oscar. The self-styled "lunatic" is Alba. They're both patients at Abenaki, an upscale mental institution in Maine. What happens when they meet is the basis of Lisa Carey's touching, multilayered third novel, Love in the Asylum. Alba is young, beautiful, bipolar and then some. She's been in and out of Abenaki more than a dozen times in her 25 years; the first was when she'd gone three weeks without sleeping and then set her house on fire. She's a successful author of children's books, but her mental illness forces her to be on medication most of the time, and it's hard to write through a lithium fog. When Alba first meets Oscar, he's being dragged into the clinic by his brother as a last-ditch effort to get him cleaned up. Oscar is mostly addicted to heroin, but he'll pretty much take anything that helps to keep him insulated from the harshness of reality. Scraggly, skinny, unwashed and unhappy, he is, in other words, a wreck.
Oscar and Alba's mutual attraction is strong and instantaneous, though clearly saddled with all kinds of potential problems. They're not so much lost souls as broken ones, half hoping to find in each other some way to piece themselves back together. Meanwhile, Alba finds a series of hidden letters from a former inmate of the asylum committed against her will to the son she'd been taken away from. The letters are written by Mary, a woman of the Abenaki Indian tribe, who had the power to heal the spirits of others by searching out the missing parts of their souls. Alba is clearly intrigued. Seeing one last chance for healing her own soul, she sets out, with Oscar's help, to find the piece of herself that's been missing. As in any such quest, what she finds might not be what she thought she was looking for. But the journey, much like this novel, is good medicine.