In 2014, the Best American Short Stories had one story in it with a hint of magical realism, and that was Nell Freudenberger’s “Hover.” Her new novel, Lost and Wanted, channels some of that of mystical aura, in addition to featuring another nervous single mom with a son named Jack. However, Lost and Wanted concerns itself less with the questions of close parenting and more with the rippling effects of death in the real world. From the beginning line, it reads less like a book about science than a book about a scientist and the people in her orbit.
MIT physicist Helen receives a call from her best friend, Charlotte, on the West Coast, but it seems to be a misdial because no one answers. Charlotte, who goes by Charlie, met Helen at Harvard as an undergrad. Then, she receives a call from Charlotte’s husband, Terrance, who informs her that Charlotte succumbed to complications with lupus. Helen continues to get mysterious messages from Charlotte’s phone, as she begins the grieving process alongside her seven-year-old son and Charlotte’s parents, who live in Brookline. Pretty soon, Terrance travels east as well, bringing their nine-year-old daughter, Simmi, in tow. The reunions begin to snowball, as Terrance leases the second floor of Helen’s home, an ex-boyfriend/colleague returns to Boston newly engaged, and news that LIGO has picked up a gravitational wave floats among Helen’s acquaintances.
LIGO keeps popping up throughout the story which grounds it in 2017, and also lets Helen exposit some science aloud. It echoes throughout conversations with colleagues and the children, whom Helen increasingly thinks of as both her and Terrance’s, even though no one makes an overtly romantic gesture. Helen occupies this bizarre head space where she defines herself by independence yet seems baffled when people constantly ask her for help with their problems. Helen routinely reacts to people’s problems, causing none of her own. She doesn’t want a husband, but seems shocked, first at her ex’s new engagement, and then, when Terrance inevitably returns to California. This subtle arrogance falls apart when she condescends to have phone conversations with her saintly sister who (horror of horrors) has a husband and a job teaching public high school, even though she keeps pace with Helen’s academic references during their conversations. Once the waves have settled, Helen just flits around her own little world watching everyone else follow through with the relationships she wished that she had, but cannot realize she wants for herself.
While a complex portrait of a woman, it feels misleading for a novel that touts itself as a science novel. Or a novel about ghosts, anyway. Helen, who narrates, insists that people ask physicists questions about the afterlife all the time, but, really, this pales when one considers how often a nun must get that question. Religion gets a surprising brush-off. While a predatory academic named Pope looms in the background, he remains a figure from more from Charlie’s past than Helen’s. Memories of Charlie serve as a segue into the maze of commentary on Ivy League life, but really they show us a recruitment brochure portrait of students valiantly battling academic puzzles and social problems in the 90’s. The Harvard scenes feel so artificial except for the redeeming twist that they reflect the narrator to whom they belong.
Lost and Wanted tangles readers up in the complications of grieving family and friends Helen’s meditations on death and cosmology reveal subtle hypocrisy, as well as interesting facts about upcoming science, if they avoid really speculating about science to come. The search for Charlie’s missing phone, too, reveals surprisingly little about death and the existence of souls. In the wake of losing Charlie, Terrance battles his in-laws over a will and right-to-die issues, but, they too, get glossed over by Helen’s scholarly achievements. Helen can never seem to follow anything through to a sense of finality, but they finally do find Charlie’s phone, and Terrance, somewhat abruptly, decides to move back to California, which ends this episode more than it resolves it.
However, for those who love wandering around complicated minds, check out Nell Freudenberger’s website for sample short stories and news on her books and upcoming events.
Two out of five stars.
Page count: 316
Favorite quote (on math): It’s so boring until you get to higher math, which is one of the most fun things you can do.