Book Quote:

“He wasn’t a murderer but he wasn’t innocent either. No one was free of crime – his crime was vague, elsewhere, nowhere, a crime not of passion but of passivity, of indifference, of failing to see people. And someone had to murder her. Someone had to confess, to offer her family that relief, to bear the burden of the horror, to be linked forever and always to that girl.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (FEB 28, 2011)

In this discomforting debut book, every character – and there are many – is guilty of the crime of passivity. It starts with the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, Leonora – a good girl, who does everything right, a cautious and obedient young lady who possesses “calm confidence, concern for the lower classes, a dimple in her right cheek.”

Yet this is not a book about Leonora, who inhabits a small fraction of the 360+ pages. Rather, it’s about all kinds of “missing” children – children who have grown up, those who have gone missing emotionally or physically, those who have been exploited or who have grown alien to themselves and their families. It is, at its core, a book about trying to find one’s place in a careless world.

Sarah Braunstein uses an interlocking story format to introduce several characters to form a sort of kaleidoscopic of our own desperate and hopeless efforts to pursue and yet push away the things in life we want the most.

We meet Paul (ironically renamed Pax, which stands for “peace”) – a boy who has run away from an abusive stepfather and who experiences not a moment of peace, who “felt a desire to smash love into his body, to smash love into the world, to allow love to be the violent act he’d always suspected it was.” We get acquainted with Judith (another irony – her name stands for “freedom”) who is anything but free; she marries young, moves to exactly the kind of quiet “every town” she’s wanted to escape, but in the end, cannot. We get to know Sam, her young husband, an orphaned character who does everything right, but cannot break free to live larger than what appears to be his predestined fate.

These and other characters bump and grind and thrash against each other, meeting up in odd ways, experiencing the bad in life and surviving in slightly diminished forms. Children grow up, adults flash back to childhood traumas and all have been affected in one way or the other. As Pax says about his childhood home, “I expected it to be – like, neutral. How stupid. Nothing is neutral, right? Least of all the home you grew up in.”

Little by little, Ms. Braunstein explores these characters’ fears – of shame and abandonment and loss of control and hope. Although the desire for transformation and reinvention is strong, it is difficult to obtain. And as they strive, the eyes of the missing Leonora peer down from ubiquitous billboards, not unlike the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. I suspect it is no coincidence that Leonora’s eyes perform the same function as Dr. Eckleburg’s – watching over their respective desolate and foul wastelands with a certain aura of judgment.

This is not a “feel good” book nor does it always work; there is such a large cast of characters and so many stories pleading for attention that it’s easy to become a little lost in the wilderness. Yet this novel – which spans decades – is also confidently written with many strong insights and an original voice. While it is not a book I’d recommend for everyone, it is a rewarding book for those who can handle multifaceted themes and wish to experience a writer on the cusp of potential greatness.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 8 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company (February 28, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Sarah Braunstein
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More books, if you like this one:


February 28, 2011 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Short Stories, y Award Winning Author

One Response

  1. dougbrun - February 28, 2011

    Jill ~ Thanks for your review. I heard the author speak last week at my local indie bookstore, Longfellows, here in Portland, Maine. Chirs and Stuart, the owners of the bookstore, could not have more effusive about a book or author. I go to a lot of readings at Longfellow and know when these guys are excited–and when they’re not. They were excited. The book is on my list. (Stuart promised to let me read his copy–after he finished reading it AGAIN.) Your review underscored my anticipation. Thanks.

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