Friday, March 25, 2011

SONGS FOR THE MISSING by Stewart O'Nan (2008) Viking Penguin, 277 pages

What strikes more fear into a parent's heart than a missing child?

It's the summer of 2005 and for high school senior Kim Larsen, "It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow. The last summer, the best summer, the summer they'd all dreamed of since eighth grade... an extension of their best year." In what turns out to be their last conversation, on the day before Kim disappears, she takes her bookish younger sister Lindsay to Dairy Queen and tells her, "You know, dude, I'm really going to miss you." Lindsay, in typical teenish disbelief and pitch perfect mumbling monosyllables, retorts, "No you won't."

Once the police are contacted, Lindsay's mom bends under their constant questioning and admits out loud, "I think someone took her." At first it's the extended neighborhood and church community who gather and form teams to comb through areas that Lindsay was known to frequent. Their well-intentioned but limited searching soon gives way to a media frenzy and the investigative support that leads to real answers.

Throughout this harrowing ordeal, Lindsay's parents Fran and Ed don't sit passively waiting for her miraculous return. They turn their attention to schedules for the volunteers, make earnest pleas for radio and television audiences, appear at Lindsay's high school, trying to get her story out to the wider world any way they can. Months pass as the family tries to carve out a new normal--a life without Lindsay in it, though they dare yet to hope for her return.

In a Tennessee Williams turn, it is the kindness of a lonely stranger that finally offers the Larsens the only succor left to them.

SONGS FOR THE MISSING is my first exposure to Stewart O'Nan. His prose is powerful and rife with emotional resonance. Already, I've got his newest novel, EMILY, ALONE, lined up to read next. If it hadn't been for Washington Post Book Critic Ron Charles' enthusiasm for O'Nan's work, I may never have found my way to his books. And, what a shame that would have been.

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