Where’s My Real Wife?

I recently read the novel Atmospheric Disturbances, written by Rivka Galchen (a trained psychiatrist). It begins when the main character wakes to find that his wife is a fraud. She looks exactly like his wife and shares her voice and mannerisms, but there’s no question that the woman in his house is an impostor.

Although the term’s never used, the main character is suffering from Capgras Syndrome. Capgras is one of those rare neurological conditions that sounds like science fiction to those of us who are more or less neurologically intact. It’s perhaps one of few syndromes intriguing enough to fuel an entire novel. (Two, in fact; it was the basis for the novel The Echomaker as well.)

One theory is that Capgras happens when regions of the brain linked to emotion are damaged or disconnected from visual/face recognition areas. That’s oversimplified, but the point is that our emotions are inextricably woven into our perceptions of other people. The feeling of love for a spouse or parent or sibling or child is so integral to our experience of that person that in its absence, despite every scrap of evidence to the contrary, we can’t believe the person is the same. I can’t help but find this both facinating and surprisingly romantic.

Atmospheric Disturbances wasn’t my favorite read overall, but I admire the creative risks it took. It lived up to the term “novel.” For one, Galchen included her actual father as a prominent character and his research in meteorology as a motif throughout the book. There’s even a family photo; she was a cute kid.

Here’s a brief interview with the author about the book and her interest in the topic:

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