Book Review - Web Exclusive

The wait that truly is the hardest part

By Don Lee
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2008
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By Stewart O'Nan

Viking, 287 pp., $23.95

Stewart O'Nan has had a varied and prolific career as a writer, yet he has always focused his considerable talents on empathetic, intimate portrayals of everyday people. His twelfth novel, "Songs for the Missing," is no exception, although at the onset the book has the deceptive markings of a whodunit.

Kim Larsen, pretty and well-liked, has just turned 18. She's spending her last summer before college in Kingsville, Ohio, a backwater town near Lake Erie with a box factory and not much else. Known as "the good daughter," Kim is working the swing shift at a Conoco gas station, killing her off-hours by swimming in the river and building driftwood fires at the beach with friends. Then one day, on the way to work, she vanishes.

After the first chapter - the only one from Kim's point of view - the novel rushes along with the urgency of a police procedural. Predictably it's revealed that Kim was not perfect. Her parents thought her new boyfriend was a bad influence. She smoked and drank and indulged in recreational drugs. She was on birth control. She had a tattoo. She was involved in a small-time speed deal, the particulars of which remain frustratingly vague. Yet nothing terribly unseemly is revealed, and the very ordinariness and goodness of Kim and everyone else in Kingsville - a town of Rotary meetings and fire department car washes - becomes the point of the book, making her loss even more heartrending.

No doubt some readers will be disappointed that the exact circumstances of the case are never disclosed. In refusing to do so, however, O'Nan forces the reader to experience the characters' desperation concomitantly. The novel becomes a depiction not so much about the missing, but about those who are left behind, how they cope and change. O'Nan alternates points of view with each chapter, concentrating mostly on Kim's mother, Fran, younger sister, Lindsay, and father, Ed, allowing us to closely witness the complexity of their emotions as the investigation proceeds and they must contend with rumors and false leads.

Fran, an admissions clerk at the hospital, wishes she had done more to protect her daughter and regrets their recent arguments: "No one had ever made her unhappier, or more unsure of herself." She launches into action, searching the Internet for resources on missing children: "It was a kind of heavenly netherworld decorated with hearts and cherubs, yellow ribbons and white roses and scrolls of poetry. The Hope Network, 18-Wheel Angels, BringJoHome. In between 800 numbers and links for national clearinghouses and private eyes, the lost smiled for the camera. Some of them had been missing for years." She organizes a Web site and tip line of their own, arranges interviews with TV stations and newspapers, and marshals neighbors, church members, friends, and coworkers to distribute buttons, rainbow pins, T-shirts, balloons, and pink bracelets. Despite outward appearances, her resolve falters at times, and she develops a dependence on alcohol and sleeping pills, but indefatigably she presses forward with walkathons and fun runs, candlelight vigils and circles of hope.

Lindsay, 15, withdraws into her room, sick of everyone's sympathy and prayers, appalled by the festive nature of her mother's fundraising events. She's convinced, from the beginning, that Kim is dead - "The rest was just not wanting to believe it" - and she yearns to mourn privately. "Her sadness was hers, an inner temple where she worshipped alone, untouchable."

Ed, a real estate agent and coach of the girls' softball team, initially preoccupies himself with the details of the search and investigation. He affixes flyers on light poles, gets teams of volunteers to comb along the river, and pesters the detectives, insisting on canines, helicopters, infrared scanning equipment. But when Kim's car is finally found, he feels a letdown, "at the mercy, once again, of unseen forces." With nothing more to do, he retreats as well, embarking on solitary outings on his fishing boat. And his wife, who has become "someone he didn't know," accuses him of giving up.

None of them wants to let go, although doing so would provide relief. Later, an unidentified female body is found, and Fran decides that, if it's Kim, they'll have to find a way to go on with their lives. If not, there is still hope. "There was no choice, only those two possibilities, and she feared that at some point she would no longer see the second as preferable. It had been two months and already she was crumbling. What would she be like after two years, or ten?"

That is, though, precisely what they will have to endure. The first half of "Songs for the Missing" covers roughly one month, but the last quarter of the novel flies through the next three years, when they arrive at a closure of sorts. The structural imbalance of time is perhaps the book's chief flaw. O'Nan's prose is spare and straightforward, bursting with occasional lyricism, but sometimes the chapters seem too short, the arrangement of alternating points of view too fragmented.

Yet the book's emotional power is undeniable, as each character grieves for Kim, wanting her disappearance to mean something beyond "the world's incoherence." In the midst of that search, they elegiacally discover a little of what has been missing among themselves.

Don Lee's most recent novel is "Wrack and Ruin." He teaches at Western Michigan University.

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