A Proper Knowledge, Michelle Latiolais’s follow up to the family-centered novel Even Now, is another novel focused around family and relationships. Luke is a dedicated, perceptive Los Angeles doctor with a practice treating autistic children – his career choice influenced by his own late sister, a schizophrenic whose memory haunts him at times.
Latiolais forms a smooth, continuous narrative within the characters' lives, opening them up to the reader in all their endearing quirks and inside jokes. Meanwhile, rewards are offered up via the sparkling glimpses into Luke’s treatment psychology; he is a doctor whose gentle observations and interest in his patients bleeds over onto the reader. One of Luke’s patients, Stan, speaks only in lines from The Lion King and The Manchurian Candidate, a mystery that Luke seeks to unlock with his inherent perceptiveness:
Stan stands very still, a small, narrow statue; there is a tremendous, calamitously still anger rigidifying his body, and then the anger is kinetic and he begins to turn, his arms held close to his body, turning, turning, dervishing, his arms open to maintain his balance, and Luke knows he must wait, maybe five, maybe ten, maybe fifteen minutes before Stan stops, and that, in fact, it is therapeutic for Stan to twirl, that he’ll be calmer afterward, his coordination better.
Unfortunately, the book is not without its flaws. Luke’s concern for his friend Naila – a new mother and doctor who is married to another, controlling, doctor who would rather see her give up her career for child-rearing than he would himself – goes unresolved after the issue’s initial presentation.
Through this couple, Luke meets his new love-interest a floral artist named Alice whose work evinces deeply mysterious psychological overtones. Luke first falls in love with her work and then, before really getting to know her, the woman herself. His head-over-heels fascination in Alice is inexplicable beyond his admiration of her work, and he is asking her to move in with him by the second date.
Through Luke’s quick-witted, imminently likeable mother, the novel questions how much Luke’s interest in Alice crosses the line between personal and professional. Does Luke have a savior complex because of his sister? Does he see quiet, reclusive Alice as a stand-in for his sibling, or for his patients? Is she someone he can nurture, cure? Latiolais writes:
He has thought to find in her life what went wrong, the catastrophic, but he’s weary of those thoughts right now, understands them to be less about Alice than about what has happened to Alice, that there is a distinction and that locating trauma serves his profession but not his heart.
The potential for imbalance in Alice is part of what makes her work so successful, so sought after. There is an unfettered, unsuppressed subconscious mind at work in her arrangements, but with all that’s made of Alice’s state of mind, nothing ever comes of the hints that she will somehow affect the treatment of Luke’s patients. More importantly, her suggested past traumas never surface, and, disappointingly, she turns out to be surprisingly normal. Luke spends a good deal of time pursuing Alice, but once she agrees to meet with him (a meeting and subsequent relationship that come too easily for such a private woman), stories about his patients fall off and the rest of the narrative centers on their interactions.
The novel is as much about compassion as it is about understanding one’s own inner processes. These themes are perceptively interlaced into a winsome, albeit flawed, love story that is as serious as it is funny. Overall, the colorful characters and intelligent observations carry the novel. In spite of its imperfections, A Proper Knowledge presents a compassionate, inquisitive look at the mysteries of the mind and the intricacies of human relationships.