Sarah Braunstein’s debut novel, just released in February, might claim to be about the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl named Leonora, but The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, which I received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program, is not so much about Leonora as it is about the many ways children—and childhood—can go missing. Paul’s childhood is lost because his mother favors her boyfriends over him, leading him eventually to run away. Sam’s childhood disappears when his mother drives the family car into the path of an oncoming train, leaving only Sam alive. Judith appears to have simply given up her childhood for reasons only she understands, if she understands. Leonora’s story is just the thread that holds the other stories together—sort of.
The novel operates as a set of interlocking stories. Each part begins with a glimpse of the days leading up to Leonora’s disappearance and then moves to the characters who are the focus of that part. The time line bounces back and forth in time and among the various characters. It’s disorienting and sometimes frustrating. New characters and storylines are continually being introduced and then dropped suddenly, sometimes to be reintroduced later, sometimes not. After a while, the book started to feel cobbled together from lots of disparate bits.
That’s not to say the bits aren’t compelling. It’s easy to get invested in Paul’s troubles, but that’s partly because he gets more attention than the other characters. After he appears a few times, his story starts to seem worth the emotional investment. (But the resolution of it is, in my opinion, implausible and calculated to pull at the heart-strings.) I also really liked Sam. I was a little squidged out by the developments surrounding Sam’s aunt and his girlfriend, but I did find them interesting, even as I wondered if some moments were included merely for shock value. Almost all of these characters have some sort of secret desire or hidden impulse, and watching them dance around these desires made for uncomfortable reading. The discomfort wouldn’t bother me much, though, if I could be sure it was leading somewhere. Only Leonora’s story has a clear narrative direction from the start, and we know early on that it’s not going to have a positive outcome.
As for the writing, I was impressed with Braunstein’s terrific eye for detail, as demonstrated in this description of a park 7-year-old Paul wanders into on a trip to the city:
The park smelled of grease and melon, a picnic air. Free of his mother’s grasp, he was drawn to a stream where a pale red fish whipped itself in circles around a beer bottle. He was drawn to a tangle of barbwire. He found a yo-yo without its string. He found an unopened can of RC Cola. The place was full of traps, bitty snares, harmless and perfect mysteries, a pile of athletic socks here, a trumpet case there, more and more yellow flowers the deeper in you went, orange newts. But it wasn’t nature that interested him, it was how ruined nature was, how full of metal and glass and plastic, and he understood that in some essential way nature really was best when it was spoiled, you could know it better like this, could see it for what it was, though you weren’t allowed to say so or you were a litterer and unlawful. He didn’t want to litter; he just enjoyed the effect.
This passage is especially interesting because I think it reveals something of what Braunstein is going for with the book as a whole. She’s showing bits and pieces of ruined lives in order somehow to know these lives better. And Leonora is, perhaps, represented by the yellow flowers in this ruined bit of nature.
I can appreciate what Braunstein is trying to do, but the novel really seems to skim along the surfaces of these characters’ lives, diving in only at the saddest, seediest moments. Those moments are well-described and revealing to a degree, but they aren’t enough. The characters and their stories feel largely incomplete. Braunstein does enough well here that I think she’s an author to watch, but I hope she shoots for depth rather than breadth in her next book.