An obsession with, or desire to forget, a long-missing child keeps a family trapped like flies in amber.
It’s the stuff of tabloid TV or heartbreaking features in the weekend paper, but the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of a young girl from a picture-perfect suburban family can still make for good fiction. Here, Ward (Sleep Toward Heaven, 2003) presents us with the Winters family (never mind the slightly melodramatic name), a messed-up bundle of upstate New York Wasps who have never quite recovered from the day when the youngest of three daughters, five-year-old Ellie, went missing after school and was never heard from again. Both of her sisters, repressed Madeline with her Wall Street broker husband, and self-consciously slumming Caroline—once a pianist with a gold pass to Juilliard and now a dozy cocktail waitress at a revolving bar in New Orleans—blame themselves for what happened. The mother, widowed now after despair, anger, and drink took her husband, lives alone with her odd rituals and fanatic questing, 15 years later, still to find her Ellie. Most of the story is observed by Caroline, a noncommittal walking zombie and not the most thrilling of hosts through this emotionally frozen world. Things slide downhill even more when she insists on taking up her mother’s search by going to Montana in search of a girl in a magazine photo whom the two of them are convinced is Ellie. Not surprisingly, things don’t turn out as planned, but not far from the end Ward turns the tables, bringing together two other seemingly unrelated narrative strands into a walloping knockout of a finisher that would seem like a cheap trick if it weren’t so thrilling. The author plays a smooth game, not showing her hand until the absolute right time, just when you were about to give up on a seemingly hopeless case.
A voyage of discovery cloaked in suburban ennui: engaging and hard to let go.