30 Books in 30 Days: 8.3.11

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan


I found this book on the bargain bookshelf at Barnes and Nobles and snatched it up.  In a two-day stint of the hottest week of the summer, I sat on my couch in the air conditioning and absorbed this book’s sad and plaintive tone.  It is a beautiful book, carefully evoking a family and town’s response to the day a teenage girl goes missing.  I was drawn in to the book because of its opening pages and the way the author evokes the small Ohio town and the details of the setting:  the interstate, the small-town roads, the gas station, the bars and the small-town stores that make up this young woman’s life and the life of her family.  We follow the soon to be missing heroine’s movements in the opening pages of the book, feeling her small-town yearning to get out, seeing her rebel and hang out with her friends, their relationships finely wrought through the dialogue, nicknames and physical descriptions O’Nan uses.  So strong is O’Nan’s depiction of this young woman, that we feel connected to her even though, after the day she goes missing, we are not able to hear her voice, see her actions and understand her desires in quite the same way for the rest of the novel.  The rest of the book reads like a slow-moving poem or even dirge.  But, this does not mean it is slow-moving.  It means that the effect of the book is that of layering reaction upon reaction of family members and friends, each getting their own chapters through 3rd person limited point of view.  At times the reader strains to know, “just tell me what happened to this girl!”  the desire for plot movement straining against the mournful interior meditations of each character.  But, instead of this being a criticism of the book, I think O’Nan has captured the very real phenomenon of a situation where there are no fast-moving answers to this girl’s plight.  And so, instead, the family is left with more questions than answers, and as a result, songs of their own regret, desire and growth as their lives move forward from the date of the loss of this young woman.  The ending of the book does provide some of the plot answers we have all been waiting for from page one.  But by then, O’Nan has so skillfully brought us into the fabric of this family and town’s life that the answers are, as with most things, beside the point.


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