Neuroscientist, know thy brain! It’s almost too convenient that the prickle of mistaken memory plagues the Alzheimer’s researcher at the heart of You Lost Me There, a novel dealing less with actual late-life reinvention than with the difficulties of such things. Luckily for author Rosecrans Baldwin, it’s the only real contrived moment in this well-turned debut.

In spite of his professional calling, which earned him a plum research position at a Maine university after stints at Harvard and NYU, Dr. Victor Aaron has one major reason not to look back: The death of his wife Sara in a car accident is still so fresh, he hasn’t gotten around to cleaning out her office yet. He and Sara were working toward a reconciliation at the time of her death, which only adds to his grief. His numbing-agents of choice include insomniac stints of classical music and a secret affair with his junior lab researcher, whose burlesque hobby entrances but confuses him. Victor’s lone effort to sort through his wife’s possessions turns up a series of notecards, part of an exercise from couples’ counseling, in which Sara describes the turning points of their marriage—moments that suggest the rift between them was far deeper than he thought.

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His professional accomplishments separate him from having to relate to actual patients, which is probably one of the reasons Victor feels so adrift. Baldwin invests his office life with an accurate amount of pathos—the grind of writing endless grant applications, of knowing his cushy Downeaster life could be swept away—painting it as a monotony preferable to the unpredictability of life outside the lab door. Victor’s exploits give the prof-lit genre a melancholy spin (though he doesn’t teach), but You Lost Me There finds a little lightness in his plight. Recurring appearances by Bruce Willis, whom Victor once met at a party, and whom he considers the epitome of the flawed modern man, are a welcome comic motif; other pop-cultural bubbles, from The Blue Dahlia to a breakdown of communication over text-speak, buoy Victor’s search for meaning in his closed-in world.

As Victor relates much better to his job than to his fellow humans, the novel stalls a bit with the arrival of two longtime acquaintances—first, his childhood friend Russell, an unrepentant womanizer of the kind Victor both envies and loathes; then Russell’s twentysomething daughter, Cornelia. It’s difficult at first to view these characters as more than grease on the gears of the plot, but Cornelia elbows her way into You Lost Me There, as a voice starkly separate from Victor’s, bringing a little air into his stuffy life.