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Book Review: The Fifth Floor

The Fifth Floor. Julie Oleszek. Mockingbird Publishing, March 1, 2015, Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and Kindle, 300 pages.

Reviewed by Julie S. Halpern.

Julie Oleszekʼs exceptional first novel, The Fifth Floor, blends 1970s Midwestern nostalgia with harrowing, unexpected tragedy in an intensely readable, lightning-paced debut. With unerring attention to every detail, from the texture and taste from now-extinct candy bars to long-ago pop songs to the race to spear the few precious hotdog pieces embedded among the family’s baked bean dinner, Oleszek draws us into Anna’s world with surprising immediacy.

Anna is the second youngest of ten children in a working-class suburban Chicago family. Her hard-working parents show little outward warmth to their large, energetic brood. Fortunately, Anna’s siblings are loving and close, particularly Anna’s next oldest sister, Liz, who is her constant companion and confidant.

When Liz’s death from a brain tumor coincides with a playground accident, eight-year-old Anna blames herself and begins a terrifying downhill spiral for several years until she nearly starves herself to death. Ultimately committed to a mental health facility, Anna finally gets the treatment she needs. Her progress is rocky and uneven, but, with the support and kindness of other patients and medical professionals, Anna emerges whole and able to resume her life.

Oleszekʼs searing description of medical procedures used to force Anna to eat, from the sickening tastes of the hospital food to solitary confinement when she fails to comply with protocol, are horrific. Details of Anna’s often hostile attitudes towards staff and other patients are unsparing, complete with violence, escape, and resulting loss of freedoms.

Oleszek has created unforgettable images of troubled young people bravely struggling to cope with often brutal and unfair childhoods. Anna’s fellow patients ultimately become close as family members, creating their own unique community. As patientsʼ physical and emotional wounds heal sufficiently for them to leave the hospital, their departure is always unannounced and wrenching, with no addresses or phone numbers exchanged and no way to stay in touch outside this artificial world.

The only issue I have with this remarkable book is the omission of events Anna experiences after her release and return to her former existence. Readers cannot help but be emotionally invested in Anna’s life post treatment, and the short paragraph written ten years later leaves too many questions unanswered about the emotional journey we have weathered along with Anna. While we are grateful for her recovery, we canʼt help but desire more information. But maybe after sharing so many painful revelations, Anna is entitled to her privacy.


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