Book clinic: which fiction best depicts therapy and therapists?

The counsellor and author Bijal Shah recommends novels from the psychiatrist’s chair and beyond

Q: I’m studying to become a therapist. What are the best depictions of therapists and therapy in fiction?
Georgia Smith, 43, North Carolina, US

A: Bijal Shah, a counsellor, ‘book therapist’, author and poet, writes:
Fiction offers thoughtful insight into the conscientious work of therapists. Using the full breadth and depth of the creative licence, client cases are examined in blistering detail. The book that jumps to mind is Irvin D Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept. A perennial literary guide for both therapists and therapists-in-training, it marries philosophy and psychoanalysis. Modern psychoanalysis founder, Joseph Breuer, attempts to treat the influential philosopher, Nietzsche, who is on the brink of suicide. Breuer, himself, is recovering from a broken heart. They form a therapeutic alliance, each attempting to heal the other’s depression. Yalom’s other notable novels with protagonist therapists, also of interest, include Love’s Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy and The Schopenhauer Cure.

For something a little closer to home, try Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, about New York psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein’s attempt to untangle the dysfunctional family secrets of her suicidal patient, Savannah. Lowenstein persuades Savannah’s twin brother into therapy hoping he might offer much-needed insight. She soon discovers the twins’ deeply disturbing past, realising the significant task ahead of her, only to fall for her brother – her own turbulent past is not so different. Eloquently written, it’s harrowing and testing for any therapist.

And if that falls short of a page-turner, the recently published psychological thriller, Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient brings to life every psychotherapist’s nightmare, a seemingly innocent patient potentially on trial for murder.

While different in plot, structure and writing, what these books have in common is the importance of a successful, intimate client-patient relationship. In this respect, it’s worth considering one nonfiction that reads like fiction, Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. This reaffirms our faith in therapy through client stories and her own parallel therapy with her father-like psychotherapist, bringing healing and hope.

Submit your question for book clinic below or email bookclinic@observer.co.uk

Bijal Shah

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Book clinic: what contemporary literary fiction is uplifting?
From tales of older people achieving extraordinary things to a redemptive quest, our expert picks titles that offer hope

Alex Preston

19, Jan, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: Which thrillers and crime fiction will keep my teenager hooked?
From Agatha Christie to Anthony Horowitz, writer Peter Swanson recommends the best of classic and modern

Peter Swanson

14, Mar, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: recommended books about the best of humanity
From a redemptive tale set in Norfolk to classic Michael Frayn, our expert selects books that are funny and inspiring

Kate Kellaway

24, Mar, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which modern novelists could rekindle my love of fiction?
From Barbara Kingsolver to Julian Barnes, our expert picks the best storytellers for someone who has given up novels for gardening

Alex Clark

29, Jul, 2018 @10:47 AM

Article image
Book clinic: which books best examine the nature of loneliness?
From Proust’s explorations of consciousness to Olivia Laing’s meditations on isolation, solitude is literature’s friend

Alex Clark

17, Nov, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what are the best titles for LGBTQ+ representation?
Armistead Maupin, Jeanette Winterson and a host of other good writers have brought gay literature into the mainstream

Hannah Jane Parkinson

10, Mar, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which European fiction will revive my love of modernist novels?
Author and critic Alex Preston recommends fiction for fans of modernism

Alex Preston

15, Jun, 2019 @4:59 PM

Article image
Book clinic: excellent shorter novels
Great literature isn’t all weighty tomes, as this selection from novelist Ayòbámi Adébáyò proves

Ayòbámi Adébáyò

18, Jan, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: can you recommend modern fiction to replace my love of classics?
Francis Spufford and Michèle Roberts will satisfy a classical bent, or try going cold turkey with a graphic novel

Claire Armitstead

21, Sep, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what constitutes ‘well read’?
No two people’s lists are the same, but the Anglo-American greats and the ancient Greeks and Romans are all required reading

Robert McCrum

12, May, 2018 @4:59 PM