In ‘Lost,’ caring people find strength in numbers

By Joe Darda
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2010

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‘Information is control,’’ Joan Didion writes in her 2005 memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking.’’ When her daughter is hospitalized and her husband dies suddenly of a cardiac arrest, this is her coping strategy. Yet, as she discovers over the course of a year, some things are simply beyond her control.

Susan, the protagonist of Alice Lichtenstein’s new novel, “Lost,’’ is confronted with the same cold reality as her husband Christopher’s dementia rapidly progresses from irritant to handicap.

A microbiologist and Princeton professor, Susan studies the regenerative properties of salamanders. She watches her specimens regrow tails, legs, even parts of their brains. In the lab, with microscope and scalpel, she has control. With Christopher’s illness, however, she can only watch, helpless.

In “Lost,’’ Lichtenstein — who earned an MFA in creative writing from Boston University and is the author of one previous novel, “The Genius of the World’’ — provides an intimate picture of one marriage slowly undone by the tragedies of age and illness. Typically the self-assured PhD, Susan struggles to contend with her husband’s psychological deterioration and the inherent discomfiture in their shared social life. As Christopher’s illness becomes increasingly evident, her colleagues and friends begin to decline her dinner party invitations with vague excuses and apologies: “It hurt how often her friends had chosen fear.’’ Ill-equipped for further embarrassment, Susan uproots Christopher and herself, relocating to a small town without ties to — or reminders of — her past life.

When on a cold winter morning Christopher goes missing from their new home, Susan is united with Jeff, a search and rescue specialist with problems of his own: His young wife has just left him and, although years younger than Susan, he is contending with an aging body, slowed by a rare bone disease. A timid man, Jeff spends his days helping others, while always lacking the audacity to help himself.

Jeff is a small-town factotum; his office door reads, “JUVENILE FIRE INSPECTOR; CONSERVATION OFFICER, DEC; JEFF HERDMAN, MSW.’’ And though he and Susan come from entirely different worlds, they find solace in an unlikely companionship as the search for Christopher enters its 11th hour.

At the time of the disappearance, Jeff has in his care Corey, an 11-year-old boy responsible for an accidental but devastating fire. Corey has grown mute from a family’s neglect and, like Susan and Jeff, is overwhelmed by trying circumstances.

As rescue workers canvas the area, Lichtenstein dips back into each of her characters’ personal histories, further illustrating the life-altering consequences of luck, coincidence, and misfortune. With delicate prose, she manages to craft not only a story of bereavement, but — with a desperate search in progress — one of suspense and mystery as well.

And yet, the disentangling structure of “Lost’’ is so discreetly orchestrated that this should-be-powerful novel is left slightly diluted. Susan and Jeff’s faults are, at first, so apparent as to seem implausible, but, as these quick and improbable friends divulge their most intimate secrets, their choices become more understandable, even relatable. As Lichtenstein explains, “How a person acts under stress is the key to the soul. The state of it anyhow. Its relative newness.’’

Lichtenstein illustrates this philosophy in her intimate characterization of Susan and Jeff, their search for Christopher revealing analogous qualities: regret, insecurity, and compassion. Both are caregivers, Jeff by choice and occupation, Susan by obligation. But as ward of the state Corey becomes involved in the search and rescue, the author exposes the extent to which stress can be just as unifying as it is revelatory.

Underlying Lichtenstein’s graceful but soft-handed second novel is this subtly offered idea of a shared human experience, hidden until the darkest moments. “It seemed then as if the whole world had defied the laws of nature, that God had given a swift kick to the globe to get it spinning faster than it had ever spun before and that she and all the earth’s inhabitants had launched into thin air.’’

Joe Darda is a freelance critic who lives in Seattle.

LOST: A NOVEL Alice Lichtenstein

Scribner, 256 pp., $24