Intricate and grim debut explores freedom’s failings

By Clea Simon
March 1, 2011

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Tragedy, done properly, leads to catharsis. A release, if not a lesson learned, comes after the horror, a payment for our willingness to submit to emotional pain. Catharsis, unfortunately, is what is missing from Sarah Braunstein’s accomplished debut, “The Sweet Relief of Missing Children.’’

Braunstein, recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2007, received her MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and both her skill and her failings are typical of this kind of pure-art pedigree. Rather than relying on a traditionally linear narrative, the Portland, Maine-based author instead introduces us to a loosely connected web of characters, whose tales are delivered patchwork-style in a series of vignettes.

Jumping back and forth through time, these characters grow up, act out, and run away from a small town in upstate New York, reinventing themselves as they careen to the next disaster. Along the way, they interact, impregnating and betraying each other, creating the next generation of lost souls. The only innocent in this loose conglomeration of characters is a 12-year-old named Leonora. A good girl raised to be safe, we learn from the beginning that she will be anything but. Still, from the first pages, she works to absorb her family’s teachings. “You are precious,’’ she learns. “You are precious but you are not free. You can’t be both.’’

Her cohorts in this packed debut never seem to know this, not that their freedom brings them any happiness. Paul, for example, wishes he had the kind of structured life Leonora enjoys: “A friend at school had a chore chart affixed to his refrigerator. Paul longed for such a thing.’’ By the time of Leonora’s abduction, however, he has escaped his disorderly life, renaming himself “Pax’’ and returning full circle to the house where his desperate mother brought her men. Judith, who comes to own that house, had her moment of freedom as a teen, ending up in a hotel room with a sadist named Q before she returns to the stultifying routine of family life. Sam knows about freedom firsthand: His mother killed his father, baby brother, and herself, seemingly to escape. Although he will grow up to marry and have a family, it will never quite replace what was lost.

These lives are depicted in well-chosen details, like the smell of a leaky house or the awkwardness of an adolescent girl who having “crossed her arms over her chest, drew attention to her own embarrassment.’’ Occasionally, Braunstein gets a little too writerly. Who but an MFA would describe a laugh as “plangent’’? She makes up for it with recognizable touches of reality, the occasions celebrated with “yellow cake and fizzy wine.’’

Weaving in and out of time, Braunstein teases us with bits of these stories. A moment from a marriage is followed by a childhood incident, a minor misbehavior that may have planted the seed for that later betrayal. A missed opportunity — a potential lover left waiting in the woods — leads to a mismatched alliance. And all the lessons in the world cannot save one good girl, whose better instincts lead her into a trap.

That, more than her complicated structure or multiple characters, is what trips Braunstein up. Because ultimately, all of these stories only wind down to grim despair. More than discomfiting, “Sweet Relief’’ is unrelenting, showing Braunstein to be a skilled writer who uses her deft pen to depict a joyless view of life in which the best that can be aspired to is anesthetized survival. She does it beautifully, working the reader in slowly to these interconnected lives. But it is empty artistry, an exercise in showy manipulation, and as heartless as Leonora’s abductors.

Clea Simon is the author of six novels. She can be reached at


Norton, 363 pp., $24.95