In The Folded World, the slim, wiry, golden-haired Charlie Shade has enjoyed significant success over the years, determined to follow his calling as a social worker. In reality, Charlie has been gifted with a great sense of social justice and is driven by a desire to help the mentally ill.
Meanwhile, Alice, Charlie's bride-to-be, has recently left her home in Gloucester searching for fulfillment. Bookish and introverted
(also "fatherless and fond of funnel cakes"), from her earliest memories, Alice feels as though she has lived much of her life absorbed in someone else's story.
Alice and Charlie meet and flirt on a snow-covered sidewalk and unexpectedly fall in love. After all, she is just an anonymous girl, a receptionist who has never even gone to college, and he is a man bent on ambition, unable to train himself in love, "almost crying with happiness."
"When I was a child, I dreamed of you," she tells him just before they move in together in an apartment on the top floor of an old grey house on a sunny windswept corner.
Overjoyed to have met a man like Charlie, Alice has never been forewarned of happiness.
To her, it comes as a complete surprise that she had a husband of a sort she had never dreamed existed.
Charlie soon secures a position at Maynard Psychiatric and is swept up in the throes of his career, his work requiring the heart, mind and senses, all girded by his brute strength. At first, he's gallant and tender, loyal to Alice.
She in turn is proud of him, coming to believe in his work and his compassion for strangers.
Soon, however, the pressures of the job begin to take their toll, especially when Charlie finds himself drawn to the wayward and severely disturbed Opal, a young girl who has developed a deadly fear of snow. Recently brought in psychotic and starving into Maynard, Opal finds a confidant in Charlie.
He in turn finds comfort in the problems of the beautiful but psychotic Hal, the son, the wrestler, and "the half-back, doe-eyed child."
Gaige writes of these strange, private worlds so intricately folded, her characters constantly challenged in their perception of happiness. The novel is about the tangle of invisible threads that we weave throughout our existence, "connected and vibrating, alive with a billion transmissions."
Thrust into a situation that he cannot afford to be in, Charlie begins to question his judgment. Just as his hard-boiled supervisor fingers him for getting too close to his patients, Alice begins to draw away, the pressures of motherhood and her inborn bookish shyness proving almost too much for her to bear.
Despite the circle Alice and Charlie drew around themselves in their joy, even their marriage becomes like "a floating, unallied thing." In a disquieting burst of resolve and kindness, the emotionally fragile Alice, feeling neglected and uncared for, turns to one of Charlie's patients for consolation.
In the process, she unleashes a set of startling circumstances that test the very limits of the couple's marriage.
In this eulogy on life and loyalty, Gaige beautifully dissects the language of marriage and gets right to the heart of what it means to be in love. Full of profound observations on the nature of intimacy, The Folded World also shows how happiness can turn to bitterness and adversity,
how the loss of love or the possibility of never finding love can ultimately drive people crazy with defeat.