There were two reasons I read Songs for the Missing, a novel by Stewart O’Nan that came out last week. The first was that, based on what I’d heard of Last Night at the Lobster, O’Nan seemed like he was doing a sort of regional fiction, which interests me. The second was that the first chapter, about the disappearance of Kim Larsen, popular high school student about to leave for college, sounded like the beginning of a good mystery.
My first motive paid off, generally. The novel takes place in eastern Ohio, in a marginally depressed, semi-Rust Belt sort of town, which I feel O’Nan has captured well. That is, of course, based on my extensive firsthand knowledge of sleepy, economically disadvantaged Ohio suburbs. But anyhow, I did think I was getting a good “feel” for the place, which was nice.
My second motive, not so much. The tone and atmosphere of mystery disappear pretty much as soon as Kim does. And I wasn’t super sad to see her go, either—not very interesting, not very bright, but of course she’s the most popular girl at school. In any case, we know very little about her. Her younger sister Lindsay looks up to her and is bullied by her; her mother Fran gets in typical parent-teenager fights with her. Kim’s relationship with her father Ed doesn’t get much press. And her friends and boyfriend are pretty typical.
That’s the thing: everything about Kim is typical. Her family, her friends, her middle-American town. And she disappears. Everyone mobilizes, but the place doesn’t become any less bland. In fact, it may be worse. Now there’s only one topic of all conversation and thought.
The story takes us through the immediate aftermath of search parties and radio alerts and fundraisers. And eventually the town moves on and stops looking for Kim, but Fran never does. Fran is desperate, and it’s difficult to read about. She holds it together, yes, but she continues with ridiculous rallies for Kim long after she should have just moved on with her life. Probably this is realistic; it’s still depressing. And of course it’s selfish. Ed and Lindsay can’t move on when Fran is so focused, and the remaining living child in the family is all but ignored in favor of the missing (presumably) dead one.
I ultimately found that following the family so closely on their journey of despair made closure difficult for the reader. Fran finally gets what she is looking for and, though they can certainly never go back to “normal,” the family does move on. But at that point things were a bit anticlimactic, and the real problems seemed to have more to do with communication among the living characters, rather than with the dead one. If you’re interested in a family psychological drama, this is probably quite good. But it won’t play out like a mystery with anything like suspense.