The Schrödinger Girl

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by Laurel Brett

It’s April 1967, and the times they are a-changin’.

Not that Garrett Adams, Ph.D., professor of psychology at New Paltz College, has noticed. He’s still living in the ’50s.

His favorite team, the Yankees, is losing. His research on motivating rats reluctant to run the maze he set up is so boring he tosses his research into a trash can.

He heads to a favorite Columbus Circle bookstore. There he discovers a book about Schrödinger’s cat and quantum physics and vows that he will invite the first person to pick up another copy of the book to lunch.

That person turns out to be 16-year-old Daphne, a Long Island high school student who can hardly wait to shed her youth and become an adult. She accepts his invitation. And Garrett Adams’ life changes profoundly.

Over random encounters with Daphne, Garrett realizes he’s dealing with different variations of the girl he first met in the bookstore. They look alike but they live in different places and roles — as the emancipated muse and model of a trendy artist, as an anti-Vietnam War activist, a drug addict hitting bottom, and a girl in crisis trying to organize her world to protect herself.

But more profoundly is how the Daphnes affect Garrett — introducing him to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, opening his eyes to the Vietnam War and to psychedelic drugs. They rattle his allegiance to behaviorism psychology and its focus on the quantifiable. He lets his hair grow long. He grows a beard. He deals with friends who think he is crazy when he talks about the different Daphnes. He changes the focus of a course in the middle of a lecture. He becomes a professor so popular he maxes out the number of students who can fit in the lecture hall. He opens his heart to a relationship. And to fatherhood.

Author Laurel Brett has experimented with standard reality to create a wonderful and touching novel. Using physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous metaphor about a cat in a sealed box that could either be alive or dead — or both until proven otherwise — is an apt way to describe both the Daphnes and Garrett as they evolve.

The months between 1967 and late summer 1969 are a rich setting for this story. From the Summer of Love to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy; from the Vietnam War to the moon landing and the women’s liberation movement, change was rolling through society like thunder. Near the end of the book, when at least one of the Daphnes has graduated from high school and is headed for college, Garrett buys her tickets for the Woodstock Festival as a graduation gift.

Equally perfect is the name Daphne and the reference to the Greek myth of Apollo’s pursuit of the unwilling river nymph Daphne. In desperation, she calls to her father, the river god Peneus, for help. He saves her by turning her into a laurel tree.  The issues of freedom, petrification, being an agent in one’s own life echo throughout this book.

Quantum mechanics in a human sphere is is a tough premise. Bringing it to a satisfying conclusion is even more difficult. Brett has done it exquisitely.

About the Author: Laurel Brett (1951 – )

Laurel Brett, who describes herself as a refugee from the 1960s, is a Manhattan native. Her passion for the arts and social justice led her to earn a doctorate from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1987. She expanded her award-winning dissertation on Thomas Pynchon’s work into a book, Disquiet on the Western Front: World War II and Postmodern Fiction published by Cambridge Scholars.

She teaches English, Women’s Studies and intellectual history at Nassau Community College.  Brett lives in Port Jefferson, New York, with her husband, Mark Kauffman and two children.


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