December 17th, 2011

Rose-coloured Reviews *Songs for the Missing* by Stewart O’Nan

I have been working in publishing for way too long not to read all the extra book bits no one cares about. Card page, acknowledgements, note about the type, copyright page–I’m on it. And that page of quotations from reviews some poor intern who hasn’t read the book cobbled together (that was me, once)–that too, though since this only happens once I’ve purchased it, there’s no point.

In fact, it can be problematic to sit down with a brand new reading project and start with 7 or 8 contextless statements on it’s extreme brilliance. Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan was an extremely well-reviewed book and had 26 such statements, and I daresay I would’ve like it better had I not had my expectations overwrought by promises such as “As we read, we, too, are changed, and in ways we cannot even understand.” (San Francisco Chronicle) or “O’Nan is on a kind of mission to restore a simple, true sense of humantiy to the novel” (The New York Times Book Review)

After getting about halfway through the book, I actually followed up and read the whole of some of those reviews, and found that the excerpts were largely faithful to the wholes; this book is pretty universally adored. So at this point I just feel stupid for not really liking it all that much.

I’m not immune to the achievement of this novel. It’s about a family and a community suffering, waiting, and mourning when 17-year-old Kim Larsen goes missing. I understood that the author loved his characters and wished for a happier story than he could write for them–always a stunner to see that kind of restraint in writing. And the book felt very true: O’Nan never stooped to melodrama, never exaggerated or sugar-coated.

However: I never felt I knew the characters; even when I was terribly sad for them, it was more the many left-behind of the missing that they *represented* that I was sad for. Kim’s parents, Ed and Fran, never seemed to come alive for me, and her friends and boyfriend were little more than teenaged *types*.

I think the problem might have been one of ambition–there are six points of view in this novel, and it covers more than three years, so I never really felt that anything had been portrayed with the sort of depth I wanted.

But let’s back up and work through the book as a whole. The chapters are narrated in third-person-limited. That first one is from Kim’s perspective. It’s only after you read the whole of the book and come back that you realize how gorgeous this opening is, how perfect and elegaic it is, the only part I thought that was consciously poetic, without ever seeming to be. Kim’s viewpoint seemed honest, irreverent and flip as a person who doesn’t know she’s about to disappear. I completely got her character, though I didn’t necessarily like her.

And then she does disappear, from the narrative and from the world. I only picked up halfway through the book that the characters only got a narrative viewpoint when they were in the small town of Kingsville where it was set, or planning to go there imminently. It’s not giving too much away to say that, after the first chapter, Kim isn’t in Kingsville anymore, so we don’t get her POV.

The other points of view that take over after are Kim’s mom, dad, sister, best friend, and boyfriend. I thought it was telling that a number of reviews mentions that the point of view of *two* of Kim’s friends were used, but they weren’t: Nina gets a POV, Elise doesn’t, but the characters appear interchangeable until quite late in the story so it is very hard to keep it straight.

The pace of the novel is gut-wrenchingly slow, because the pace of a missing person’s investigation is, too, or at least feels that way to those waiting. I was bored, but I was pretty sure I was supposed to be bored; it was accurate for the situation being described.

Some of the various blurbage on the book described it as a kind of procedural, and not that I’ve read many of those but I don’t think it is. Big swaths of the investigation are ignored because the family isn’t actually privy to what goes on; the police/family relationship isn’t good. Again, that felt accurate if the book is a kind of procedural of how to be the family of the missing, which includes a lot of grace under condescension and forced ignorance.

There were some weird errors that I caught–Old Navy isn’t an expensive store and the Killers aren’t a British band. That made me worry about the facts I didn’t know enough to catch errors in, like…what the police did and when, and what the Larsens’ legal options were. The errors I mention here are trivial, but they were important in that they made me trust the narrative less, and thus distance myself from it–never a good thing.

As well, particularly at the beginning and the end, there were lots of things going on that the reader is never fully aware of even though the family is, and we certainly don’t know the exact procedures of the officials involved, even when our various narrators are well-involved. The narrative flits through time, and I often would’ve liked more detail about, say, Fran’s community organizing, but the story skips to focus on flirtations between Kim’s old friends.

This review is probably sadly revealing of my own goals as a writer. I like to live with my characters in what feels like real time–the framing of the story is the decision to write about it, and I don’t like the reader to feel her chin being nudged, “Look at this, no, *this,* this is what’s important and the rest doesn’t matter.” O’Nan is not embarrassed to nudge, to elide and emphasize what he sees as important.

So I never understood why the drug connection Kim and her friends had couldn’t be properly explained; the stigma lingers until the last page but I never figured out exactly what they did. For a while this is a secret so people are afraid to discuss openly, but after everyone knows, it’s still kept from the reader. Or it’s possible I’m just obtuse. Ditto the amount of obsessive detail about Ed’s readying of the first house he represents after he returns to work as a realtor following Kim’s disappearance. This section is so detailed that I was expecting him to find Kim’s body in the house’s basement, or something equally important. But there’s no obvious reason for these pages of emphasis–it drifts away and you don’t even find out what the house sells for, or if it sells at all. Very strange.

The ending is an anticlimax for both characters and readers as it would pretty nearly have to be, realistically, given all that has and hasn’t happened previously. O’Nan handles it with quiet aplomb–he doesn’t leave us quite without hope, but to the last, he doesn’t give us anything undeserved either. *Songs for the Missing* wasn’t really the book I wanted it to be, but nor was the reading of it in any way wasted time.

This was the 11th book in my To Be Read Challenge. One more to go before the end of the year!

4 Responses to “Rose-coloured Reviews *Songs for the Missing* by Stewart O’Nan”

  • Jeff Bursey says:

    “After getting about halfway through the book, I actually followed up and read the whole of some of those reviews, and found that the excerpts were largely faithful to the wholes; this book is pretty universally adored. So at this point I just feel stupid for not really liking it all that much.”

    RR, I had the same experience with Colson Whitehead’s _The Intuitionist_ when it came out in paperback, and very recently with Michael Kimball’s _Us_. Both came draped in accolades, and neither lived up to them, but I did ask: Is it just me who doesn’t get this, or are those others misled? I decided on the second, after a bit of thought.

    Thanks for this post. Nicely done. And not only because I recognize the struggle.


  • Rebecca says:

    Jeff, I’m glad this happens to serious book reviewers like you–I rarely review or think of my opinions in the context of other reviews, so then I wind up feeling like I’m dumber than everyone else. I hope you are having a great holiday season! See you tomorrow!!

  • josh says:

    I loved your review, Rebecca.

    On many of the one- and two-star reviews discussed some things that you said in your review. they bemoaned the lack of empathy for characters and some confusion in the plot and even “Does the reader care about the characters?”

    The four- and five-stars lambasted them and said it was NOT supposed to be that way and said it was supposed to be more of a reflective novel.

    As a writer myself, I think many of his books are good but this one garnered hype due to his previous efforts. The jacket cover is actually misleading it as to be a whodunit versus a character sketch.

    The only character that seemed redeeming was Lindsay–she finds hope as a sandwich worker–but in the end she too, fails, still and forever underneath her sister.

    The father was a hard worker but the mother had the brains and power in the family, plus the better job. She even organized the search parties and dealt with the media, while the father just got depressed and failed to take action after an initial flurry of activity.

    Some of the facts were off–the Chevette was a weird vehicle to use and there were fact errors about that car. And in most cases, until the case is closed evidence belongs to the police.

  • Rebecca says:

    Hi Josh,

    So glad you enjoyed the review and thanks for taking the time write. It was a strange book, and the factual errors you mention don’t surprise me, though I would’ve have known if you hadn’t said. It felt like O’Nan didn’t research as thoroughly as he might’ve, and that maybe was part of his distance from the characters, and thus from the readers. Or I don’t know…the strange thing is, I’m not super-sure *what* was wrong with this book, just that some things were, at least for me…

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