Book review: Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger

(cover image courtesy Penguin Australia)

Life is, in many ways, a bittersweet mix of opportunities seized and chances lost.

This all too flawed and earthbound state of affairs is not necessarily the result of poor decision-making or impetuous planning; it’s often simply the consequence of sliding doors rising up to meet us, necessitating that a decision of some kind is made, good or bad, whose outworking, good or bad, must be lived with.

In Nell Freudenberger’s achingly-beautiful and very real Lost and Wanted, Helen Clapp, a physics professor at MIT, is belatedly forced to consider the sum total of decisions taken when news reaches her that her best but currently distant (geographically and emotionally) friend Charlie, whom she’d known since college days, has died.

It is the sort of call no one wants to get it, not simply because it closes the door of renewed contact in a way so final the reverberations are heard thunderously throughout the rest of your life, but because it forces you to confront, in ways you might more happily avoid, the state of your own life.

On paper, Helen was navigated the tricky shoals of life’s grand decisions reasonably well, with all her existential limbs intact.

“I spent one evening going through boxes of old photographs in my closet, until I found the one I was looking for. It was a shot of me and Charlie at her wedding … My expression is giddy—I was more than a little drunk—but Charlie is staring into the camera in a serious way. Maybe it’s the contrast in our expressions, but looking at at this photo, now framed on my desk, I have the strange feeling that something in it is alive. 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.” (P. 27)

But dig a little deeper, and through circumstances such as the arrival of Charlie’s ex-husband Terrence and daughter Simmi back to Boston , where Charlie’s parents Carl and Adelaide live, and the marriage of ex-college boyfriend Neel, Helen is forced, like so many of us, to take a good hard long look at the landscape of her life through the haze of grief and regret, and try to determine if she has navigated well or poorly.

It’s a near-impossible thing to judge without rampant subjectivity, since who of us can stand back and assess things with any kind of rationality, and certainly Helen, a bust career woman with a seven-year-old son Jack, is more more capable, of nor possessed of the time to do it, than the rest of us.

But as Freudenberger writes with elegantly expressed language and an insight into the cratering holes of grief that a loss of such a vibrant, close friend, one who suffered with a chronic disease that eventually wore her down, causes in anyone’s life, Helen has no choice to wrestle with whether she has all she wants and whether all her decisions were, in fact, good ones.

A difficult, bedevilling is made all the more challenging and emotionally taxing by the arrival, via text and email, of what appear to be messages from Charlie beyond the grave.

That can’t be the case, of course, since Helen, a physicist who daily ponders the mysteries of black holes and space time, does not believe in ghosts, the supernatural or indeed anything that hovers, tantalisingly, beyond the knowable realms of science.

Nell Freudenberger (image courtesy official Nell Freudenberger site)

And yet, as the messages arrive, at first random and near-nonsensical and then eerily reflective of the way Charlie would have thought and spoken, Helen has to get to the mystery of who is speaking to from a realm she doesn’t even believe exists.

In doing so, she has to ask herself exactly what the nature of her relationship to Neel is and whether he remains, in some lingering sense, the one who got away or if she is content to have him as a work colleague and nothing more.

Charlie’s husband Terrence, a handsome surfer who has never been acceptable to Charlie’s aspirational black mother – there is a finely-studied and expressed exploration of black and white race relations and the way this expresses itself in a myriad of places including, mote tellingly, academia – and is especially on the nose because of his assumed role in his wife’s assisted suicide, moves into Helen’s downstairs apartment, muddying the waters of who or what she wants still further.

It is the normal stuff of grief’s chaotic, deeply-unsettling afterwash, and Freudenberger expresses it without melodrama or sensationalism, quietly and sensitively examining the slow progression of the shock of loss into a subconsciously forensic distillation of needs and wants, the exact form of which Helen begins to try to dissect with her sister Amy who, after the fractious years of childhood common to many siblings, has now becomes a close and insightful friend.

“Charlie looked startled, and then she laughed. ‘I love you, Helen.’

‘I love you, too.’

She sat back in her chair, poked at a piece of seaweed in a desultory way, then out the chopsticks down on a ceramic rest made to look like a fish. She didn’t look at me, but hr mouth was set in a way I recognized, refusing pity.

‘But I am tired,’ she said.” (P. 171)

Physics is in many forms is infused throughout, expressed both as intellectual discussions between Helen and Neel particularly, for whom the often esoteric, to outsiders at least, branch of scientific study, can seem remote and barely applicable to everyday life.

For Helen, it is in many ways her life, a constant presence that informs her relationships to Neel, her son Jack, her what-is-he-to-her growing friendship with Terrence and a host of other beautifully-articulated moments that infuse Lost and Wanted – a telling title since the finding is an often elusive outcome, denied to many of us – with an intelligence that is ferocious and constant and yet always married to an innate sense of the humanity of those who study it.

The novel is, in many affecting ways, a study of grief and loss, of roads taken and roads ignored, deliberately or otherwise, but it is very much also of the here and now, existing in a place that life so often does, where questions are legion but the answers are fleeting if they, as they so often don’t, turn up at all.

That is life’s greatest mystery – how do you get anywhere at all, especially in the light of a close friend’s death, when so much of what constitutes life is unknowable, messy existing in unfinished chapters which never have the magically conclusive words “The end” applied to them because the neat endings of fiction rarely exist in the fallibility of the everyday.

So it is in Lost and Wanted, a restrained but deeply-emotional and very human book which dares to ask some hard questions and is equally okay with the fact that the answers may not find expression.

While Helen does get some of the answers she’s seeking, more from omission of end result than active fulfillment, she ends this novel much as she begins – a woman grappling with a multitude of issues in a manifestly unfair and contradictory world, who is all too aware that we don’t always get what we want and that that is both the way of things we must accept and a thing of profound and lingering regret, the two existing together, often uneasily, throughout the uneven twists and turns of all our lives.

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