I fell hard for Nell Freudenberger after reading her second novel, The Newlyweds: a wise, expansive page-turner that elegantly moved between Bangladesh and New York in its portrait of a cross-continental relationship. The book was extremely perceptive on several familiar themes — marriage, family, travel — but it achieved real grace in its soul and sheer depth of feeling, cementing Freudenberger as a major novelist.
Seven long years later, her next book has, at last, arrived in Lost and Wanted, a quiet, searching tale of grief and friendship. Freudenberger employs her distinctive skills — her stylistic restraint, the unmannered quality of her prose — to slightly different effect here, relying on a spare, meditative telling in the construction of what amounts to a very interior novel. Helen, a professor of theoretical physics at MIT in her forties, learns that her college best friend Charlie has just died of lupus. After confirming the time of death from Charlie’s widower, Helen finds herself stumped: How, exactly, did she get a call from Charlie after her supposed passing? There seem to be a million logical explanations, but texts written in Charlie’s voice start coming in, too, and then Helen’s 7-year-old son, Jack, says he’s still seeing Charlie around. Suddenly the universe stops making sense — or maybe, as Freudenberg engrossingly posits, it’s actually just starting to make sense.
Is Lost and Wanted a ghost story? Freudenberger exudes a mysterious distance as Helen vies to understand the situation, but the author always returns to the living. Whether recounting her studies or putting her various “encounters” with Charlie into context, Helen offers up chunks of densely scientific analysis in her narration, which intriguingly challenge our general conceptions of time, death, and matter. She says of quantum entanglement: “It’s a real phenomenon…that has less to do with communication than with a shared history that causes a pair of particles, even once they’ve been permanently separated, to behave as if they knew what each other was thinking.” A bit of a mouthful, sure, but Freudenberger always seizes control: Helen’s wordy ramblings authentically indicate her struggling to come to grips with a most unusual, spooky predicament. And this quote, particularly, highlights the theory at the novel’s center.
Yet for all its fascinating insights, Lost and Wanted lacks cohesion. The emotional momentum that fuels Freudenberger’s best fiction (also including her novel The Dissident and short-story collection Lucky Girls) is absent, replaced by scattered — though certainly potent — profundity. Helen is tough to get a handle on: She’s prone to lengthy asides, which forces Freudenberger to excessively jump around. Her mind wanders.
At its best, the novel permeates a sense of loss. As Helen reflects on how she and Charlie drifted apart, the writing feels steeped in longing, and hits hard. (“I have the strange feeling that something in it is alive,” Helen wonders while fixating on a photo of them at Charlie’s wedding. “Charlie seems to look through time, as if she knows what’s going to happen and has something very urgent to say, if only I could concentrate hard enough to hear it.”) But then, say, background on Charlie’s attempt to make it in Hollywood as a black woman — too removed from the book’s core, if interesting enough in isolation — interrupts the spell. There’s also the case of the lover-who-got-away, Neel, Helen’s college science collaborator who didn’t want to go the wife-with-kids route. (Helen conceived Jack with a sperm donor, and raises him as a single mother.) Freudenberg gets bogged down in outlining Neel and Helen’s history, the nature of their work so complicated and jargon-heavy that it tends to drown out the more affecting, human story of a partnership that couldn’t last. Exposition does not work in Lost and Wanted’s favor.
Charlie’s surviving family — her surfer husband and their daughter, Simmi — eventually move into a rental unit attached to Helen’s home. This creates some needed focus. Surprisingly, the book’s heart moves to the fore in the form of Simmi and Jack, children whose understandings of death are simultaneously simplistic and enlightened, unsure of its permanence and still able to be touched by its mystery. Their theories stand up pretty well against Helen’s discussions of black holes and gravitational waves.
The kids’ prominence informs an ambiguous, potentially revelatory climax, which I found moving but also a bit small, given everything Freudenberger had previously been spinning. (And I won’t give away too much here.) Indeed, for all the territory that Lost and Wanted covers — from race to gender dynamics to quantum physics to academia to parenthood to the TV business’ ins and outs — it’s ultimately an intimate depiction of the experience of loss. But Freudenberger doesn’t tighten her novel accordingly. Instead, like her brainy hero, she gets lost in her own head. B-
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