My favorite feature of Autumn Leaves is that it’s more or less three novels in one. The set up, confrontation, and resolution experienced by our main character, psychologist Dr. Duval Sinclair, feel like their own stories. Author Stefan Vučak makes this work because it keeps the novel unpredictable. Right when you think you know where events are taking you, you’re wrong.
Dr. Sinclair has the perfect family, the perfect job, perfect everything. However, when life goes to Hell for him it does so thoroughly. His button-cute daughter is hit by a car and dies. This is just after he gets electrocuted on the golf course by lightning, the aftereffects leaving him with an eidetic memory, which is the ability to recall precise details of an object after seeing it only once and briefly. (Apparently 2%-15% of children can do this, but never adults, except in miraculous cases. It’s similar to photographic memory, only doesn’t last as long.)
Sinclair also finds himself with the ability to see “auras,” emanations of light surrounding living things, the colors of which get determined by a mood or emotion. As a psychologist, this superpower (of sorts) serves as an incredibly efficient tool. Having a visual indication of how his advice effects his patients provides path marks for how to proceed with treatment. It also does wonders for his empathy.
As a husband though, this power does him no good whatsoever, except to show him how bad he’s failing. Following the death of their daughter, Dr. Sinclair and his wife Lenora’s marriage disintegrates, shredded from the sudden, suffocating absence of their child. Lenora accuses Sinclair of not being distraught enough, of the being a cold, detached man of behavioral science rather an actual father. She also blames him for being there when their daughter was killed and not doing more to stop it. Sadly, Sinclair is never quite sure if he disagrees with her.
The book’s second act finds Sinclair falling in love again, this time with a saucy, female lawyer named Aviana. They meet on a flight, same as he did with Lenora, the forcibly shared space of an airplane making for a life-changing chance encounter for him once again. This particular encounter is especially serendipitous as he and Aviana happen to be flying to the same place for the same reason: to work against each other on a court case. They strike up a conversation and sparks fly. Evidently, being able to see auras also makes for a great pick-up device.
This is where the novel turns from quasi-urban fantasy into a crime story. A revenge-seeking maniac shoots Aviana as well as one of Dr. Sinclair’s work partners, though managing to only wound either of them somehow. Sinclair receives a few threatening emails and there’s suspense made over who this person could be. The good doctor has handled his share of police cases, which often result in prosecution. For this reason, a psychologist working with the police can find themselves with a number of enemies. So who is it?
The last act sees the hammer of fate dropping heavily on Dr. Sinclair once more. Here the story becomes a tragic romance. His enhanced brain function has not come without its price. After being with someone who has already suffered a series of bad luck accidents, plus—y’know—getting shot, Aviana understandably struggles to maintain her affection for him. Once Sinclair overcomes this hurdle and wins her back, there awaits one more hurdle, except this one he can’t jump over. The ending is not a happy one. Or I suppose it depends on how you look at it.
Vučak’s writing is as eidetic as that of his protagonist. Like Sinclair, the author knows how to provide the right detail at the right time, or enough to fill scenes out with a third dimension. The reader spends their time with Dr. Sinclair and no one else. This can, in places, begin to feel tedious, especially when given the details of, say, the doctor’s current golf game. However, by the last act, these details—even when we glimpse Sinclair’s multi-layered political beliefs—provide a level of intimacy with him which makes the reader feel as though we are discovering his final bad news right there with him. In the same damn room. It’s riveting stuff.
While the last act feels rushed, this was likely a necessity. Any extended description of his tragic marriage to Aviana would have felt too saccharine and weepy. Still, the situation is so unique as to beg for at least a little more elaboration. Also, seismic events keep happening to Dr. Sinclair but not because of him. He can seem like an unwitting participant in his own life at times. His daughter dies, he’s struck by lightning, he gets his arm broken by a careless Uber biker…It all feels so random. How could one person have this much bad luck?
In fairness, this could be Vučak’s intention: to offer an artful presentation of the chaos of being alive. One day life is perfect, the next it’s destroyed. It can be rainbows and butterflies, just as easily as it can be dead children and mental illness. The difference between having either isn’t necessarily up to us. And there’s not a superpower on Earth to change that.
About Heather Wilde
Heather Wilde was a fashion reporter for over 10 years. She also published fiction and essays in a multitude of small and large press magazines, including Ocean Drive, On Stage, and The Miami Herald’s “Tropic Magazine.”
She had two off-Broadway plays staged in New York City: “Supper’s Ready” and “Dark Lords of the Trailer Park.”
Originally from Florida, she now lives in Westchester, New York.