It was all anyone wanted, a substitute to stand in for a loss, it was the worst and most obvious part of human nature. – from The Sweet Relief of Missing Children –
The Sweet Relief of Missing Children is not just one story – it is the story of many characters which dance in and out of the narrative, sometimes connecting with each other, sometimes not. There is Leonora, an innocent twelve year old living in New York City who forgets her parents’ warnings about strangers…and is abducted. There is Paul, living with his narcissistic mother, struggling to be accepted for who he is, wanting to be recognized. Goldie, Paul’s mother, is also searching for acceptance and for love – she thinks she will find it in the arms of a man. There is Connie, a woman who sees the ghost of her deceased sister-in-law and who struggles to raise her nephew Sam. Judith runs away and is abused by her boyfriend; Grace flees her boring life to find adventure; Thomas helps women abort their children by day, and peeks into their windows by night. The cast of characters in Sarah Braunstein’s debut novel is huge and quirky. They are average and remarkable, both at the same time.
The character who binds the other characters together is Leonora. It is her story which takes the longest to tell even though it occurs over the course of just a few days, and we don’t know what will become of her until the very end of the book. What connects Leonora to the rest is not a physical connection, but more of a thematic connection. The novel is less about any one character and more about the commonality of their struggles. Braunstein focuses on the search for identity, the desire to flee or “disappear” when things are not going well, the lure of sex and love and immorality when our self esteem stumbles.
Could she go back to the city? She’d thought so. Her instincts told her to return. But she had to remember not to trust her instincts. That was the lesson, right? Do not say yes. Do not follow. When that thing leaps up inside of you and says Go Go Go for the love of all that is holy! – you stay. – from The Sweet Relief of Missing Children –
Another common thread which connects the characters is that of parenting. What makes a good parent? Is it enough to just love your kids, or is there something more they need? Can a child rise above the sins of the parent? How much of who we become is based in how we were raised? Braunstein is not kind to the parents in her novel – they are flawed and sometimes selfish – but, they are also very real. They love their children, but they struggle with that love.
As I was reading this book, I began to think of it as a collection of linked short stories. Many of the characters’ paths cross in the course of their lives, some are connected simply by who they know. The novel spans years, moves back and forth from past to present, and alternates from one character’s view to another’s. Braunstein writes beautifully. She captures the emotions and thoughts of her characters and puts them into terrible situations which are difficult to resolve. They make bad choices and must pay the consequences. Braunstein’s writing is raw, emotional, and sometimes very uncomfortable. I appreciated the honesty and grittiness of the prose.
This is a non-linear novel and at times it felt disconnected. I found myself working hard to understand the characters and their dilemmas, to put the parts together to form a cohesive whole. Sometimes I wasn’t sure what was really happening or when it was happening. That disconnect and discomfort was a little bit like listening to a song whose melody is dissonant, or whose singer is just a little bit off key. It was not always pleasant.
The Sweet Relief of Missing Children is a gritty, raw novel that explores the darker side of human nature. The writing is gorgeously constructed, but the novel itself is disjointed. Readers who enjoy literary fiction and novels which incorporate the idea of linked short stories, might want to give this one a try. Sarah Braunstein is gifted, of that there is no doubt, and for that reason, I will be watching for more work from this young author.
*FTC Disclosure: I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.
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