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[524] Songs for the Missing – Stewart O’Nan

” For some reason, her mother needed her tears. Sometimes she apologized afterwards, and sometimes, dabbing at her face with a tissue, she said she felt better, but Lindsay always felt used. She never cried by herself, only when her mother provoked her, as if she wanted to be sad. Lindsay already was. She was sad for Kim and for J.P., for her mother and father, and for herself, but in her own way, unconnected to everyone else. Her sadness was hers, an inner temple where she worshipped alone, untouchable. ” (166)

Quiet but provokingly unsettling, Songs for the Missing follows the Larsen family in a small Lake Erie town in Ohio after their college-bound daughter disappears. A happy girl who just becomes the owner of a Chevette, Kim has no reason to leave. “She wasn’t in trouble, she hadn’t broken up with her boyfriend, she hadn’t met anyone new, she wasn’t pregnant or depressed or on drugs.” (46) Most of all, she is a responsible girl who is usually good about keeping in touch. She never misses her shift at the truck stop mini mart. News of Kim’s disappearance soon ruffles town and pinches many a nerve of parents. Kim’s mother, Fran, is hoarding all the attention she can get to find Kim, playing up to the interest of hungry television network that craves for stories of missing girls. Her husband, Ed, keeping calm and maintaining a distance from the limelight of his wife’s high-profile campaign, devotes to sweep search with the help of volunteers.

The problem was, he was painfully sane. He realized that he was depressed and angry, but in his position it made sense. After six months he was merely being realistic. He didn’t see what Fran hoped to accomplish, waking early and updating the website, running all over the place chasing after TV coverage. He was afraid that eventually sh would exhaust herself and end up in the same place he was. (229-230)

Remaining seemingly indifferent is Lindsay, the snotty intense kid sister, who wants to escape the shadow of her sister and lives a life of her own. She has always rubbed off on her sister’s fame and the flip side is that that protects her from nasty pranks. Without Kim she would be free to be her own person. Lindsay’s defense mechanism against Kim’s disappearance is an emotional aloofness, a perseverance of her normal life. She refuses to be provoked by her mother in bereavement, keeping her grief private.

Ed, likewise, in the long, empty moments before sleep, decided that James wade had killed her. Only Fran refused to accept it, out of reflex more than any honest consideration. She needed Kim’s death to mean something, and Wade was total unknown. (262)

Songs for the Missing opens with the suspense of a thriller and soon deepens into an affecting family drama of loss. Captured so keenly is the complex dynamics of a family after a tragedy, with each member trying to cope with the tragedy. While the purpose of the novel is not, by any means, suspense, it would still be unfair to readers to reveal too much of the plot. Kim’s disappearance is told in the first chapter. The rest of the novel is a generous narrative generous, thoughtful narrative traces the impact of her disappearance on her family, her friends, her community. This is a novel about loss and healing; a novel that acknowledges the depth of loss and the limits of healing. It addresses the question whether it’s wrong to relinquish hope.

285 pp. Viking. Hardbound. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[453] Emily, Alone – Stewart O’Nan

” The talk turned to falls, a favorite topic, and timely, with winter coming on, ice their mortal enemy . . . It was the ultimate cautionary tale, the moral being Don’t fall, as if they were of glass. In a sense they were—their fragility was irrefutable, medically proven—and yet Emily detested the inevitable rundown of accidents and tragedies, the more fortunate clicking their tongues and counting their blessings, all the while knowing it was just a matter of time. ” (48-49)

Emily, Alone hinges on Emily Maxwell’s new life after the sale of the cottage where the family, after the death of her husband, spent their last summer, as per Wish You Were Here. Almost a decade has lapsed since that particular gathering, marked by a gamut of emotions and pent-up feelings and tension regarding the loss of Henry Maxwell, the loss of opportunity in individual’s life. Despite the occasional pining for her grandchildren’s visit and nostalgia of her husband, Emily is inured to living alone and established a rigorous routine. While she enjoys the company of Arlene, her sister-in-law, her new car also allows her greater agency over her life.

It was not poverty or its semblance that Emily was afraid of as much as the loss of opportunity . . . Emily didn’t want her children to be rich, or even professionally successful. She wanted them to fulfill their responsibilities to others and to themselves, that was all. They both had so much promise and yet they seemed so unhappy, so easily defeated. (105)

When Arlene faints at the restaurant, it alarms Emily that as she ages, she will have to fend for herself. Being a dependent of Arlene on daily errands, Emily life therefore changes in unexpected ways. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities.

Emily, Alone, as the title so implies, follows the widow’s daily life to the most minute, mundane details. But in the hand of O’Nan, who has a knack for giving small experience an emotional heft, Emily’s ordinary life is made, by its majestically quiet rendering, extraordinary. Unlike the tense dynamics of familial interaction in Wish You Were Here, Emily’s grown-up children and their problems recede to the background in this novel. Although they constantly contribute to Emily’s dismay, they exist only in her passing reflection in this book. Emily, Alone is about Emily alone—mind, soul, and body. It’s about her reminiscence of life and trying to age graciously.

The world was gone . . . The sale of the Millers’ would make official her status as its sole survivor. She supposed the alternative was worse, though occasionally, stricken with self-pity after a lonely dinner and a glass of wine, she wavered. (201)

Underlying the humor and her disdain for common idiocy, O’Nan gives us a portraiture that is an incisive investigation of the ways cultural forces shape private lives. the constant clash, though rather subdued and not pronounced, between Emily and her children has as much to do with generational differences as with issues of temperament and personal inclination. The issues with thank-you notes, vacation planning in advance, and career choices also boil down one contradicting viewpoint: preference for thrift and industry vs. self-expression. Although her life has been a happy one and her disappointments mild, there exist some overwhelming surges of memory that serve only to further her constant sense of loss. Not only the loss of her husband but the loss of an old world in which she was raised and along with it the traditional values that are no longer cherished.

255 pp. Penguin Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[451] Wish You Were Here – Stewart O’Nan

” Part of it was vacation. The days were shapeless and bland, like today, taking the kids to the movies. It was just the rain, and having nothing to do. In Boston he’s be in his darkroom, satisfied to work in the quiet red light. Part of it was his father, he couldn’t deny it. For all its changes, Chautauqua seemed to belong to the past, brought those lost summers and everything in them closer. ” (173)

Wish You Were Here follows the Maxwell family’s week-long summer vacation around Fourth of July. The summer has also marked a year since the death of Emily’s husband, Henry. She gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be their last vacation at the the summer cottage, which Emily plans to sell because she can no longer take it of it by herself. She also harbors a plan to help out her grownup children, who seem to be worse than she has suspected, with the money from the sale.

Margaret, a recovering alcoholic, is recently divorced. With two children in tow, coming to the summer cottage, which she very much has dreaded, is acquiescence of defeat. She has now officially earned her mother’s disapproval of her and her life. Bored as a child and ungrateful as a teenager, she ran away from home at age 16 and returned a alcoholic mother. She has always been afraid of family gatherings for fear of being exposed and confronted of her failure—for it’s not far-fetched when she reflects upon her lost years, all the fearless, stupid, and outrageous things she has done.

On Emily’s mind also is her son Kenneth, who has quit his job and mortgaged his future to pursue his art. Over the years he has got better at anticipating his mother’s quiet criticisms, and he knows better to be honest about his latest kick. But his son beats him tipping Emily about his hourly-paid job at the photo-lab. His evasiveness and the distracted, haphazard approach to life also put a lot of tension on his marriage to Lise. In the leisure of vacation, it’s hard for her not to wallow in her problems and think of the uncertain future. And that Kenneth could talk so freely and easily with his sister—about what he has dealt on but never revealed (to her) makes her angry.

She wished she had the ability to absent herself, to become part of the dock and without intruding. She could happily sit there forever, a morning like this. The peace of the day became hers, quieted her mind, if only for a moment. At home it was impossible, any day dream leading to Henry or the children’s old rooms, the past flashing like a photo album, but here she was justified, the setting—the spirit of the place . . . (355)

As memories of past summers resurface, it becomes clear to Emily that the family summer home, a place with such spirit that is supposed to let visitors forget time, opens oneself to larger contemplation. In this beautiful novel O’Nan doesn’t devise much of a plot but he has painted a very vivid tableau of daily life. As he draws us into the tangle of jealousies, pent-up emotions, deep wounds and hurt feelings of the family, we read on less to find out what happens to the Maxwells than to become acquainted with the characters, whose life we can resonate with. As the family comes to grapple with their loss, they also come to terms with a gamut of emotions and tension. Wish You Were Here is a close portraiture of a family told through an elergy of a lost father, a lost past and lost dreams. It’s a testimony of motherly love, how inevitably parents is given to the worries of their children.

517 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[412] Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan

” I heard the door open and my mother outside, her voice tiny and stretched, screaming at him as he made for the Nova. I sat on the edge of my bed, calmly parting my hair. Like everything else that had happened that winter, I was not going to let this stop me from being happy. ” (9, 239)

Snow Angels is told in retrospection by Arthur Pakinson, who is returning to a rural community in Pennsylvania for Christmas as a middle-aged man. The story links two families, almost indirectly, by a tragedy that affects them in profusely painful manner. Set in mid-1970s, the novel revolves around two characters, Arthur Pakinson and Annie Marchand. Arthur is the narrator who endures his parents’ divorce in one winter while at the same time, Annie, once his babysitter, falls victim to a tragic series of events concomitant to her dismal, failing marriage with Glenn and her careless lifestyle.

All day I had been thinking that tonight was going to be something big, and this was the last chance. I half wanted them to attack each other, throw a lamp through the picture window so the cops would come. Instead, all I heard was mumbling. (5, 54)

Despite their being outwardly happy, Arthur’s parents are selfish and immature, putting their needs ahead of their two children. As they undergo a divorce, Arthur’s world begins to change. He becomes quiet and unsentimental, complying with his parents’ decision and assimilating to the change of socioeconomic situation with disinterest. As she weathers the marriage crisis, with the help of a shrink and plenty of boozes, it dawns on Arthur that his mother does not suddenly become tough and efficient, but puts on a false and nearly tireless optimism that suffocates her son, who decides to take on a new happiness without minding his parents.

I don’t like coming home. It keeps me from being nostalgic, which by nature I am. Even before the plane begins its descent, I find myself dreading the questions left unanswered by my childhood. Annie. My parents. My own lost years. (1, 15)

On top of the divorce, and fear and confusion that typically define adolescence, Arthur’s life during those years are overshadowed by the tragic part that involves the 14-year-old boy in Annie and her daughter’s heartbreaking calamity. Annie’s story, albeit sad and excruciating, does not invite my empathy as much as Arthur’s mental torment does. Annie’s affair with her friend’s boyfriend has not only showed her selfishness and impudence, it also causes her daughter’s life out of her negligence. Her careless actions lead to the haunting beginning, and the end, of this deeply felt and tormented tale.

Because though it was already happening to me, I could not see how I would ever come to hate the people I loved. Yet at the same time I could do nothing to stop it, and that would not change for a very long time. (11, 305)

Snow Angels is very bleak but it has the power to move. With such clarity, heart-wrenching and yet dispassionate story-telling, O’Nan gives us profound insight into adolescent trauma and how such trauma predisposes one’s perception in life. It leaves me in awe of how limited our choices in life are, especially when the ones we love most deprive us of those choices. The memory of trauma is long.

305 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[411] The Night Country – Stewart O’Nan

” Didn’t I tell you? There’s a reason we call on you, why this night comes again and again, bad dream within a dream. You think it’s torture but you know it’s justice. You know the reason. You’re the lucky one, remember? You live. ” (Something Wicked, p.7)

My first Stewart O’Nan novel, unexpectedly, turns out to be a timely ghost story set in a quaint, sleepy town in New England on Halloween. Midnight on Halloween, while the town of Avon sleeps, three prank-happy ghosts come back to haunt the survivors of a terrible car accident that claimed their lives a year ago. Danielle, Toe, and Marco return in spirit to keep watch over three unlucky, and emotionally wrought souls. They observe their thoughts, drift in and out of the fringes of their consciousness, and taunt them with eerie déjà vus.

The road’s invitation to revisit it, another opportunity to pay tribute and admit what rules their lives, and for that reason they have to pass, let it slide by as if it means nothing. (Day of the Dead, p.116)

Tim is a survivor of the crash. He is still the quiet kid that he was before the accident, except the teenager has drained out of him. He matures quickly over time and takes care of Kyle, who also survived but underwent face reconstruction surgery. While Kyle exists in an ambulatory twilight of severe brain injury, Tim contemplates a grisly act of remembrance as the first anniversary approaches. By the same twist of fate, Kyle’s mother has gravitated to anxiety over her son’s future. Will he outlive her? The accident and its aftermath have drifted her away from her husband. She feels separated from the town, which itself is swept by grief and guilt. Then there is Brooks, the well-intentioned police officer who first responded to the crash, and whose life is in shambles. Memory falls on him like weight, his conscience purged.

There are moments we don’t show you, things we leave out for our reasons. (Mercy, Spirit, show me no more!) Danielle’s sisters have called her all day, our parents and grandparents have summoned us one by one. There’s nothing we can do for them. By now you’ve figured it out: We’re visitors, our powers limited. (Halloween, p.174)

The ventriloquism makes it a funny read; but The Night Country is an intense, spooky, and sad ghost story with a contemporary setting. The pranky ghosts return for justice, but they only exist as long as they are remembered. The sad part is the expired pledging to remember them forever. As the ghosts flit in and out of the narrative, banality of small town life affords a glimpse to how people cope with loss: denial, avoidance, separation, urgency to nail a scapegoat, justification, explanation. The memory of the survival is much longer than the loss. As the novel somersaults toward a tragic end, I realize the book is more chilling than spooky, for it explores and plumbs the darkness of suburban dystopia.

229 pp. Softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]