The Sweet Relief of Missing Children – Book Review

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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  1. Great review! thanks for sharing.

  2. This novel is one of my most anticipated reads for 2011. I’ve pre-ordered it on my Kindle and am really looking forward to it. I’m glad to meter my excitement with a bit of warning, however. I do adore literary fiction, but I also prefer novels to short stories (although I prefer linked stories to non-linked ones). Regardless, I’m glad you enjoyed her writing, and as I love experiencing debut novels, especially from young female writers, I’m still really looking forward to this one!

    • Wendy on February 21, 2011 at 11:02

    Mary Ann: You’re welcome!

    Carrie: I hope you’ll like this one. I noticed that it has been getting lukewarm reviews (although everyone admires the writing, most feel the story too disjointed and confusing). I think if you approach it as a novel of linked short stories, it makes more sense. It is VERY literary in style. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it!

    • Wallace on February 21, 2011 at 11:02

    I heard about this book from Ti (bookchatter) and wanted to read it… then totally forgot. I suppose that happens with a mountain of TBR books. Thanks for the review and for reminding me that I need to move it closer to the TOP of my mountain!

  3. Great review! I’ve been curious about interconnected stories lately, ever since I read A Visit from the Goon Squad, so this one might get added to the list 🙂

    • Staci on February 21, 2011 at 14:41

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one. Not sure if it’s one that I will read or not but you’ve given me food for thought.

  4. Thanks for the interesting review. You always seem to come up with something I want to look into that I never heard of before. I will check this one out.

    • Kailana on February 21, 2011 at 20:15

    Good review! Not sure if is the type of book I will enjoy, but it does sound interesting…

    • Ti on February 23, 2011 at 09:13

    I feel so silly. I read this when I first got it from Library Thing. Loved it. And then… I forgot that I had to wait until its release date to post the review and now since the review is not written, I am too far removed from it to post my thoughts. I have to reread this one a bit so I can capture what I felt about it when I read it.

    However, I don’t recall feeling disconnected from the story, but what I do recall is that I felt like a voyeur at times. As if I was seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing.

    Oh, and thanks for stopping by to wish us luck with our new pup, Chloé.

    • Wendy on February 25, 2011 at 09:34

    Wallace: I know what you mean – I have so many great books in the stacks that sometimes I need a reminder to read them!

    Kim: If you appreciate interconnected stories, I think you’ll enjoy this one.

    Staci:You’re welcome!

    Romance Girl: I’m glad I can tempt you with a book you might otherwise not consider 🙂

    Kailana: It is very dark – knowing your reading preferences, I don’t think this is one you would love.

    Ti: YES, you hit it on the head – a voyeur. Wish I’d thought of that! LOL! I have a hard time writing a review if I let it go too long…I wish you luck getting this one reviewed!!

    • Steve M on March 23, 2011 at 17:36

    To those of you with doubts, please read it. Even though the overall narrative wasn’t tight — and I like a tight narrative — each chapter is so well done you will love it as you read it. Sarah Braunstein is a wonderful writer, and what she does with characters and language and tone and theme is remarkable. I appreciated this review because it was honest about the narrative. I wouldn’t say it was fatally flawed, just anything but wrapped up in a bow.

    • Wendy on March 23, 2011 at 17:49

    Steve: Thanks for weighing in on the novel. I agree that Braunstein is a wonderful writer and there were many positive things about this book. I am looking forward to seeing what she does next – I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more from Braunstein.

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