Sunday, October 12, 2008

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan

This book laughs at me whenever I try to sit down and write a review of it. I'm looking at its cover right now and it's snickering a little and saying, "You don't really have any idea what you're going to say about me, do you?" And I don't. A lot of people whose reviews I have encountered loved Songs for the Missing. I didn't, but I can't seem to peg the reason exactly why I didn't love it. I mean, I liked it, but then, it was just okay for me. Perhaps, despite their not having done so before, the reasons will become apparent as I write the review. Here's hoping.

In Songs for the Missing, Stewart O'Nan allows us only one stunningly ordinary chapter in the life of Kim Larsen before she vanishes without a trace. The one chapter is so barren of clues that we are left just as baffled as the family and friends left behind to dissect how Kim could have disappeared on that last seemingly ordinary day. O'Nan's story, however, is not about Kim. As a matter of fact, Songs for the Missing is not, though it might seem, even a book about finding Kim. Songs for the Missing is a picture of the ordinary people left behind when their daughter, their sister, their friend is just suddenly mysteriously gone.

Each character reacts in their own way to Kim's disappearance. Kim's mother, Fran, loses herself and perhaps even the spirit of her daughter in her incessant publicity campaign to continue the search for Kim. Kim's father, Ed, forsakes his job and even sometimes his family as he follows the action of the search, traveling to each new area where leads are discovered to hang flyers and look for himself, unable to return home and simply wait. Kim's sister, Lindsay, retreats in silence to her room where she takes refuge in books, e-mailing, and the family dog, none of which can replace the identity and future that she has been robbed of with the disappearance of her sister. Kim's boyfriend, J.P. and and her best friend, Nina, struggle with some shady what-if involving drugs and an ex-Marine, whose late discovery robs them of the right to even be involved in the search for Kim.

The reader is present for about three years during which there are some leads but no real news about Kim, and during which all the people she left behind are forced to consider how long is long enough to feel bereft and when, if ever, it is okay to feel okay again. Without any certain resolution, the characters exist in a purgatory where hope has gradually faded away to be replaced with a nothingness that forces them to re-create themselves in a world without Kim without ever knowing whether she is, indeed, dead, as many suspect or merely gone.

Songs for the Missing starts out a mystery and ends up as a penetrating character study of those who lost parts of themselves when they lost Kim. As such, O'Nan's writing shies away from the facts of the investigation in favor of probing the pysches of his characters. As a character study, Songs for the Missing is an undeniable success. Unfortunately, my own curiosity, efforts to pry loose some unnoticed detail that would prove the answer to the mystery, and desire to know the truth about what happened got in the way of my enjoyment of the book. Instead of wanting to know the characters left behind, my mind was focused on what happened to Kim. Because O'Nan skirts those details and offers up an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion to the investigation without ever probing the hows or the whys that keep Kim's fictional family up at night, I ultimately felt let down and as if I had missed something that, it turns out, wasn't there to start with. A certain mindset is called upon to appreciate this book, and I wasn't properly in it.

That said, O'Nan's writing is crisp and clean and beautifully grapples with the very human emotions faced by the characters in this uncertain situation. Having read Songs for the Missing, I'm certain it won't be the last of O'Nan's books that I will read. Then again, it probably won't be my favorite either.

My copy is an ARC. The book will be available for purchase (so says the back of the ARC) on November 3, 2008.


  1. I have this on my shelf to read. I've heard great things about the author's work and so I am looking forward to reading it. I am glad to read your review so I have a heads up of what to expect.

    I have trouble sometimes pinpointing what I don't care for in a book too. Those can be among the harder reviews to write. You did a good job though!

  2. I felt the same way about this book. It was okay, I finished it, but it didn't really grab hold of me. For me, I think it was because of all of the different characters. I never felt invested in any one particular character. Good review though! I agree, the okay ones are the hardest to write. :)