Saturday, November 8, 2008

REVIEW: Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan

Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan. Published 2008 by Viking.

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I received this book as part of Barnes and Noble's First Look program. It's also an Indie Next List Pick for November.

The premise of Songs for the Missing is pretty simple. One day, on her way to work, in the summer after she graduates from high school, a young woman disappears. Her family, friends and community look for her, and must come to terms with her loss.

The woman, Kim Larsen, is an average, pretty young woman in an average town. The narrative swings back and forth between various perspectives- her mother Fran, father Ed, sister Lindsay, boyfriend J.P., and best friend Nina. On the surface, everything is proceeding as one might expect. The tragedy of Kim's disappearance starts out very publicly; the community rallies, everybody helps out with the search. Fran goes on the Internet and on TV, she passes out buttons and businesses donate goods and service to help out. But as time stretches on slowly and public interest diminishes, the tragedy becomes a private one as the family must deal with their loss after the cameras stop. For them, surviving means the slow transformations that take shape as their lives move forward in a way different from what they expected.

The action is pretty straightforward and there are no big surprises, so for me, the novel was all about these transformations, and the two characters I found the most rewarding to watch were Fran and Lindsay. Lindsay is Kim's younger sister, the shy nerd to Kim's athletic extrovert. People refer to her as "little Larsen" as if she were merely an extension of her prettier, more outgoing sister. As time goes on and Lindsay adjusts to her new identity as the girl whose sister is missing, we see how Kim's disappearance is shaping her and changing the young woman she becomes. Fran, a hospital worker, finds meaning and challenge in the search for her daughter and begins to come to life in a small way. Which is not to say that one is glad to lose one's daughter, but these things happen in all of our lives and the book made me think about how these tragedies shape us all, for good and for ill.

Songs for the Missing
isn't what I'd call a loud book- a book that calls a lot of attention to itself with nonstop action or a flashy premise. It's very character-driven and I enjoyed reading it for the empathy and compassion O'Nan shows towards his characters as they traverse through different emotional stages and slowly integrate Kim's loss into their ongoing lives. His writing is quiet, subtle and effective as he nudges emotional truths from each. Instead of big statements, the book is full of subtlety and the small moments that make up a life. It's a good book, and it's worth a read.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.