Book Review: Summer Reading Retrospective — Vanishing Is The Thing

It is never too late to catch up with summer reading. The big theme in fiction over the past few months was the resonance of disappearance – seen as satire, as melodrama, and as tragedy.

By Susan Miron

Summer is well-known for light, escapist fiction, and this summer was generally no exception. In fact, some authors took the notion of escape quite literally. In three books — The Vanishing Act, Gone Girl, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette — characters disappear mysteriously and inexplicably, leaving the lives of those left behind in pieces. Several hot weather books featured weddings gone awry, though none duplicated the incredible zaniness of Lisa Zeidner’s Love Bomb. Finally, The World Without You by Joshua Henkin was the most serious book of the lot, focusing its penetrating glare on a family devastated by a character already dead for a year when the book begins.

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Crown, 419 pages, $25) drew enormous media attention because of its wry send-up of Seattle and its author’s renown as a writer for Arrested Development, Saturday Night Live and Mad About You. Like Bernadette, the novel’s agoraphobic and slightly unhinged heroine, Semple moved from LA to Seattle, which she skewers mercilessly.

My first trip up here, to Seattle, the realtor picked me up at the airport to look at houses. The morning batch were all Craftsman, which is all they have here, if you don’t count the rash of view-busting apartment buildings that appear in inexplicable clumps, as if the zoning chief was asleep at this desk during the sixties and seventies and turned architectural design over to the Soviets.

In interviews, Semple claims to like the city now, but I very much doubt that that retro valentine will encourage the city’s welcome wagons to offer copies of this book, with its withering descriptions of all things Seattle — women with either short, gray hair or long, gray hair, unfriendly people, horrible drivers and terrifying five-way intersections, a total lack of architectural integrity, and so many bums it’s the only city where you step in shit you pray, “Please God, let this be dog shit.”

As for the plot, Bee Branch, Bernadette’s brainy 15-year-old, serves as both archivist and narrator. A modern-day epistolary novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette uses notes sent home from Bee’s teachers, correspondence from an elite boarding school, Christmas letters, police reports, faxes from Bee’s father’s love-starved assistant/administrator, FBI documents regarding Bernadette’s surveillance, e-mails between Bernadette and Manjula Kapoor, whom she imagines is her intimate personal assistant in India working for 75 cents an hour, excepts from school reports, and an Artforum article about Bernadette that chronicles her days as a star architect.

A near-recluse, Bernadette has successfully flown the coop, leaving her daughter and husband completely puzzled. Bee is determined to find her. (Daughters are often the flame-keepers in these novels of flight.) After Bernadette splits, Bee pieces together dozens of the above mentioned texts in the course of her search: astonishing, bizarre truths emerge, more than enough to give Bernadette’s shrink—if she had one—material for a decade.

Bee has no idea her mother, rejected by the other school mothers whom she calls “gnats,” was a famous architect who won a MacArthur grant before Bee was born with a serious heart defect. Now Bernadette sees herself as a person who “devotes her celebrated genius to maligning the driver in front of her for having Idaho plates.” A chip off the maternal block, Bee concentrates her attention on keeping an eye on the “gnats,” the mothers from her school who dislike Bernadette intensely. An amusing read.

Mette Jakobsen’s The Vanishing Act (Norton, 218 pages, $23.95) is a parable-like novel featuring another young girl, Minou, who yearns for her vamoosed mother’s return. It’s the sort of quixotic fairy-tale that either enchants the reader or not. I found the book charming, if a tad heavy-handed because of its lightweight philosophical musings. The story’s characters — a magician, a priest, Papa — come off as a bit over-fanciful. The more I read of The Vanishing Act, the more it struck me that it could be classified as a children’s book.

Penned by a first-time Danish novelist who lives in Sydney, Australia, the story begins mysteriously: “It was snowing the morning I found the dead boy.” But the only real mystery is the mother’s disappearance, at least to her dreamy and lonely daughter who ceaselessly imagines how it would be if she found or even just bumped into Mama. Papa (we never learn his name but are told he is a descendant of Descartes) is a philosopher, as was his father. There’s been a nameless, horrible war, and the family lives on a tiny, snow-covered island somewhere with a few other quirky people.

Given she has a pet peacock, Mama was inscrutable and impulsive from the moment she arrived on the island. Despite her lovely paintings and her hair festooned in feathers and flowers, the woman has a darkness about her, most likely stemming from the horrors of a war she will not discuss. One day she simply walks away in her best purple shoes with a black umbrella. The island people are certain she’s no longer alive, but she lives in her loyal daughter’s imagination. As Mama once said sagely, “Reason doesn’t help you much when you are stranded on a barren island.”

Papa apparently agrees: he has given up on his quest to discover Descartes’ absolute truth. Minou writes to her mother, telling her she found the dead boy, and wishes she would come home. She tries to create a Cartesian proof that shows her mother is in China. At times, the story comes off as too self-consciously macabre, as in the description of the first night Papa brings the dead boy home: “This boy, Minou, is one of those great coincidences. He is reminding me of something. Something to do with the truth . . . I might sit with him tonight, my girl. We haven’t had anyone visiting for a long time . . . It’s nice to have company again, don’t you think.” Minou is sure her mother would be thrilled to hear about the dead boy after she returns. In the meantime, one of her shoes has popped up; they stage a shoe funeral.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was the best-selling summer read, a twisted, psychological thriller about what the author calls “the dark side of marriage.” Instead of a mother who vanishes, Gone Girl features a sinister, psychopathic wife who disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary. (It quickly becomes clear that she isn’t dead.) Whether she was murdered or simply vanished is the question bewildering those left behind, including her parents and husband Nick, a bevy of detectives, and eventually the whole town. As the days pass, Nick becomes the most likely suspect. Unlike the other fictional vanishings, there’s no saccharine sweetness here. Instead, we have viciousness and vindictiveness reminiscent of the classic film about a nasty divorce, The War of the Roses. Flynn does internecine domestic warfare well – I can’t recall a couple more brilliantly conniving. George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have nothing on this couple’s disdain for each other.

After the financial meltdown of 2008, the once-happy now jobless couple moved from New York to Nick’s hometown in North Carthage, Missouri, where he and his twin sister open a bar. That’s when the devolution of their relationship began. Alternating chapters present Amy Eliot Dunne’s diary entries, which lead up to her disappearance/presumed abduction, and both Amy’s and Nick’s reactions and doings following the former’s disappearance. Neither is a reliable narrator; Amy is a methodical maniac who arranged treasure hunts for Nick on each of their anniversaries and then craftily stages her own credible abduction.

Eleven days after her disappearance, Amy declares craftily in her diary, “It took this awful situation for us to realize it. Nick and I fit together. I am a little too much, and he is a little too little. I am a thornbush, bristling from the over attention of my parents, and he is a man of a million little fatherly stab wounds, and my thorns fit perfectly into them. I need to get home to him.” Nick wants to kill her, but he is already in hot water with the police and media, who are certain he murdered her already. The diaries continue after Amy’s return and the arrival of further treachery. The novel is a merciless portrait of two people, once soul-mates, who have grown malicious and hateful but find themselves stuck together – one, for the better, the other, for much worse.

Twentieth Century Fox recently acquired Gone Girl; Reese Witherspoon is one of the producers.

Lisa Zeidner’s entertaining fifth novel, Love Bomb (Farrar Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books, 272 pages, $26), chronicles in marvelous detail a perfectly-planned suburban wedding that goes amazingly amok. In a dark blue cocktail dress, Tess Nathanson is about to walk down the aisle at her childhood house in Haddonfield, New Jersey, when a ‘terrorist’ shows up wearing wraparound mirrored sunglasses, a strapless, white-lace wedding dress, veil, steel-toe boots, and a World War II gas mask. She may be carrying a weapon and who knows how much ammunition. The ‘terrorist’ had planned long and hard for her big day of mayhem; she has done some serious Nautilus training for the occasion. The desperado is a woman utterly undone from a romantic rejection — and it is her hope that the policeman who despises her will show up for a face to face, or make that face to gas mask confrontation. But her former lover, Van, wants nothing to do with her and doesn’t even bother show up with his SWAT team to confront her.

The credulous guests, many of whom are “mental health providers,” think the hijacking of the wedding might be a prank, even after they were instructed by the terrorist to sit, then to hand over their cell phones, wallets, and purses. “I’m not too comfortable with this,” one of five psychiatrists remarked, “very loudly and slowly, as only a very poor psychiatrist would speak to an insane person.” The ‘terrorist’ explains that the back door has been wired with explosives. She then apologizes to the bride and her groom, Gabriel Billips, a bi-racial performance artist. What ensues is a brilliant comedy of manners. Squished together in mutual panic, shorn of cell phones and medications, are several ex-spouses, couples in dicey relationships, their obnoxious offspring, African friends from Tess and Gabriel’s Doctors without Borders years, and some 50 increasingly edgy guests, many with back stories of failed love affairs and marriages

Tess’s mother Helen, a long-divorced psychologist, patiently tries to reason with the heartbroken ‘terrorist,’ while many of the other guests start—understandably—to fall apart in a frightening hostage situation that resists their usual professional tools for coping. Zeidner keeps the proceedings light and charming, deftly using the set-up to illuminate truths about race, class, sex, marriage, and off-base psychiatric diagnoses.

The “you” of Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You (Pantheon, 21 pages, $25.95) refers to Leo Frankel, who has vanished a year before the novel opens, murdered in Iraq in much the same manner as journalist Daniel Pearl. The book’s epigraph, which comes from Richard Ford’s Great Falls, reflects the amorphous sense of fate proffered by the five novels under discussion: “Things seldom end in one event.” Leo’s absence has all but ruined the lives and 42-year marriage of his parents, Marilyn and David, and indelibly affected his three older sisters, his wife, and his three-year-old son. Henkin’s previous novels, Matrimony and Swimming across the Hudson also dealt with domestic matters, but his latest tome brings considerable insight and sensitivity to dramatizing the inner lives of a large cast of carefully etched characters. It is by far his best and most thought provoking narrative so far.

Leo’s macabre death has turned Marilyn, a physician, into a famous activist who has written 24 political op-ed pieces in the past year. The rage and obsession behind her personal anti-war crusade has utterly marginalized her husband, a retired English teacher, who has been reduced to taking courses at the 92nd Street Y, running, and reading over opera librettos. Their different ways of handling trauma have alienated them from each other. They agree on very little. At a cocktail party, someone innocently asks the couple how many children they had. David answers three, while at the same instant Marilyn says four. Marilyn finds the omission of Leo unforgivable, given that he had only been dead for eight months: “I wake up every morning and look at Dad and all I can think about is Leo. Jesus, girls, we were his parents.” They plan to divorce after telling their grown children of their decision.

Leo’s three sisters, unsurprisingly, are also beset with domestic problems, and a family reunion elicits feelings that they would rather not face, at least together. Having lost the sibling she mothered when Leo was young, 39-year-old Clarissa is desperate to become pregnant. En route to the family weekend she realizes she is ovulating and instructs her husband Nathaniel to pull into a motel.

Noell, coming from Israel with her holier-than-thou husband and four sons, is picking up Lily, who left her non-Jewish boyfriend of 10 years in Washington D.C., “an entire city dedicated to making bad news and watching it spread like a disease.” During her teenager years, Noell had pathetically low self-esteem, sleeping with a rather large number of young men. In Israel, she met up with a high school friend, Arthur (now Amram), and the two were invited to a Sabbath dinner by a missionary at the Western Wall. Henkin describes their speedy one-way journey into Orthodox Judaism knowingly and with great sensitivity. It’s Noell and her family, torn in many directions, that Henkin describes most memorably.

The Frankels thought of Leo as “an insurance policy” against Noelle, “but soon they came to believe the reverse was true. Stormy, reckless Noelle would protect Leo, whose recklessness was of a more affable sort. Even when he left for Iraq, they weren’t worried. Iraq was dangerous, but Leo wasn’t in the military; he was reporting for a good newspaper. The person they worried about was Noelle, who was living on the West Bank.” Only the house in Lenox, MA, that the family lived in every summer remains a reassuring certainty for the family, with its memorabilia from Leo’s and the girls lives. Henkin knows the Berkshires intimately and gets every detail uncannily right.

Thisbee, Leo’s widow, who flies in from California with their son Calder, is embarrassed to tell the Frankels that she has found a new beau. At Leo’s memorial she feels like an interloper. Thisbee assures Leo’s relatives that she will always remain part of their family, but she has her doubts. As for the three sisters, Noelle wonders “‘Wasn’t Leo’s death supposed to bring us together?’ That’s what Lily thought, too. Her brother died, and they would all become closer, even Noelle. But they’re like dogs at mealtime, everyone with her own bowl, alone.”

Henkin’s portrait of a family a year after a catastrophe is beautifully drawn, each character’s back story and present ringing true down to the smallest detail, such as Marilyn sleeping on Leo’s bedroom floor for a week after his death and then not wanting to return to this room after that ritual. In The World Without You, disappearance is forever – there is no closure, no healing, just a painful moving on.

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