Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein (2011)

Ah, the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program knows me so well. Their fancy algorithms put me in touch with another novel I had never heard of before that I absolutely loved. Sarah Braunstein's The Sweet Relief of Missing Children (2011) is not a fun and happy read, but it is a compelling and fulfilling one, and I'm very glad it was magically sent to my doorstep.

One of my favorite story elements is structure, and the structure of this novel is unique and perfectly suited to the interlinked characters, places, and times. The book is divided into parts, each of which begins with a chapter titled "Leonora." Leonora is twelve, and we know from the very first time that we hear from her that she is going to be kidnapped. Her story, popping up throughout the novel, anchors us as we drift between the other characters while the connections slowly become more concrete and inevitable.

The stories of the other characters initially seem like vignettes held together by the theme of missing children -- literally missing in the case of runaways and abortions, but also missing in the sense of disconnections, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities. Paul lives in an isolated cottage with his lonely mother Goldie, and Thomas, an abortion doctor's nurse, has been peeping through their windows for years. Judith is a surly teenager who runs away to the city with her sketchy boyfriend Q and calls to be rescued, or witnessed, by a family friend and his teenage son. Sam's mother drove her entire family into a train when he was three, killing everyone but him. Now he balances the goodness he wants to show to the aunt and uncle that raised him, and the anger and rebelliousness that eat at him from the inside.

This novel is filled with people who are lost, unsatisfied, and unsure what to do next. As the novel moves forward through time, characters age, intersect, lose each other, and find something else. Nothing is entirely resolved, but everything is settled, and the book comes together beautifully. Braunstein has a descriptive and empathetic writing style that fills out every character, even the most tangential, and the tension in the book's plots make this a fast and moving read. Highly recommended.

[p.s. Corie, I am totally going to lend this to you the next time I see you.]

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