Schwartz’s tenth (after Referred Pain, 2004, etc.) may be her riskiest, as it intertwines her familiar fictional territory with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Things start on a bright September morning when Renata, a linguist, wakes up in bed with her lover, Jack, a recently divorced social worker. After Jack leaves, Renata decides to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to work, but, partway across, she hears screaming and looks across the river to see “a huge marigold bursting open in the sky.” With this opening, Schwartz focuses on how the attack evokes past traumas, leaving Renata unmoored and jeopardizing her relationship with Jack. We learn that Renata and her twin sister, Claudia, were close until age 16, when Claudia had a daughter (fathered, it turns out, by their uncle), gave the baby up for adoption, then drowned in a nearby river days later. Renata’s father died in a car wreck within the year, and her mother was institutionalized. When Claudia’s daughter, Gianna, was three, the adoptive parents dumped her on Renata, then 19. At seven, Gianna was snatched from a park merry-go-round, leaving Renata bereft and guilty. Now 34, Renata has trouble trusting Jack, or anyone, to stay in her life. Schwartz describes the emotional flavor of the days after 9/11 with great clarity, using quotes from speeches by the president, the makeshift signs put up by those in search of the missing, the memorials, the connections neighbors made in the midst of tragedy and the exhaustion of those who, like Jack, went to the scene to help. But it all bogs down in backstory, and Renata’s irrational conviction that a mute teenager she finds wandering the streets is her niece isn’t believable. Plus, Schwartz undercuts the emotion in scenes between Renata and Jack with detail about Renata’s linguistic interest in a culture that has many terms for loss.
A valiant effort, but Schwartz doesn’t quite pull it off.