When a man with Alzheimer’s goes missing in an unnamed Northeastern town on a cold January day, his wife finds common ground with the community’s search leader.
There is no mystery here. In the first pages, 11-year-old Corey, mute since he accidentally set the house fire that killed his older brother, finds a dead body in the snowy woods and protectively covers it with pine. The dead man is Christopher, an architect until dementia set. Christopher’s younger wife Susan, a microbiologist, blames herself for the unraveling of Christopher’s mind years before her adultery brought him to the edge of suicide, and she fears that a chemical reaction during that stressful time brought on the Alzheimer’s. As his ability to function weakened, she left her professorship and their close-knit college town, where she could not avoid her friends’ reactions, to live among strangers and care for him singlehandedly. The best writing in Lichtenstein’s second novel (The Genius of the World, 2000) describes in painful detail the unrelenting tragedy of Susan and Christopher’s daily life before his disappearance. Once Susan realizes that he has wandered off, the plot mechanics becomes creakily evident. While the police carry on a search, Susan increasingly depends on Jeff, the head of the search-and-rescue/recovery effort. A Vietnam Vet whose much younger wife Leanne left him the morning of Christopher’s disappearance for another man, Jeff is emotionally fragile himself. Coincidentally, he is also the Juvenile Arson Officer and thus involved with Corey. Although a judge ruled that Corey set the fatal fire accidentally, his family blames him, and in the course of the day Jeff learns that Corey’s grandparents refuse to keep him any longer. When Christopher’s body is found burned with kerosene, Corey is the obvious culprit.
Lichtenstein writes lucid prose that delivers a punch, but the redemptive resolution she offers at the end comes too quickly and out of nowhere, as if it were tacked on to this otherwise dark novel so that readers could feel less depressed.