Lost and Wanted: A novel
Nell Freudenberger opens Lost and Wanted with wicked good literary instinct: “In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently. This was even more surprising than it might have been, since Charlie wasn’t a good correspondent, even when she was alive.” In a novel from Knopf, from the well-reviewed author of The Newlyweds, that’s likely to pique a reader’s curiosity.
And this is no ghost story, although the protagonist, Helen, a 33-year-old professor of theoretical physics at MIT, continues to be troubled by both email and text messages from her dear friend’s phone that’s been missing since she died.
Charlotte’s (Charlie’s) parents are distraught by her decision to hasten her inevitable death on the other side of the country without their knowledge or presence. They are grieving, as is her eight-year-old daughter Simona (Simmi). Their sorrow, however, has an element of blame and anger that they direct at Charlie’s husband, Terrence; they’re convinced he must have helped her.
When Terrence and Simmi come from Los Angeles to Cambridge for Charlie’s memorial, Helen, who’d been Charlie’s Harvard roommate, speaks at the service and becomes involved with the family out of compassion, her great sense of loss, and, perhaps, a bit of attraction to Terrence. Too, she’s a single mother by choice and her son, Jack is the almost same age as Simmi; it would conceivably have made Charlie happy if their children became friends. And, of course, they do.
The letter that Charlie was supposed to have written to her parents but never finished is on her email. The only way to access her email is via her phone. Terrence (and everyone else) knows her phone code, but the phone—still sending messages that sure sound like they’re coming from her—is still missing. This is the slender thread that provides much of the narrative drive. However, this is very much a profound novel of ideas and to fail to point this out would do it an enormous disservice.
In an article titled “The Accidental Activist,” for The New Yorker of January 31, 2017, Freudenberger (a Harvard graduate and self-described gravitational wave science enthusiast) wrote, “But there’s something more than that, an intellectual failing that I associate with writing fiction, which requires an almost absurd resistance to ideas. I don’t mean that fiction can’t have meaning or significance beyond its characters, only that the writer must begin with a person rather than a message. In that sense, literature is the opposite of politics, which requires a faith that ideas can have an impact on people’s lives.”
Of course, in fairness, writers change their minds all the time, and perhaps in this novel, Freudenberger set out to show that a novel can ambitiously grapple with enormous and elusive ideas while delving into subtle and nuanced human exchanges like, say, the ambivalent feelings between friends or between between parents and children, which Freudenberger brilliantly captures in dialogue.
The novel is replete with pages of explanation of quantum physics that may have some readers who are not well versed in that branch of science either skimming or experiencing some eye-glaze. Helen’s former love, Neel, an Indian colleague she’d hoped to eventually marry—another lost and wanted relationship—re-enters her life along with his cutting-edge research and a bad-surprise fiancée— shortly before Terrence leaves it, yet another wanted and lost.
What are black holes, really, and what happens when they collide? “Einstein showed us that space bends time, and Schwarzschild gave us the math to prove it. . . Black holes were a consequence of Schwarzschild’s calculations, but neither he nor Einstein believed that they really existed. The wave Neel’s team recorded shows the last four rotations of two enormous black holes, just before they collided. . . . Physicists knew that gravity could stretch matter. We knew that a collision between enormously dense objects—black holes or neutron stars—was the most likely way we would be able to hear it. . .You can hear about something for a lifetime, though, even something you know is happening all around you, and still not really believe it, until it happens close enough to feel it yourself.”
We’re meant to see the richly detailed family forces that shaped Charlie, who is black, and Helen, who is white, as they interacted with issues of gender, race and class in this novel’s ambitious look at the gravitational forces Freudenberer’s characters exert on one another.
But more: we’re to see those intimate forces as possibly part and parcel “. . . of the same force which binds our planet to the stars,” and to consider the possibility that, “to understand more of our cosmology, we’re going to have to admit that there may be laws so different from the ones we know, so seemingly counterintuitive, that it will take all our imagination to uncover them.”