'Songs for The Missing' by Stewart O'Nan

Another missing girl? Pittsburgh novelist makes familiar story fresh

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The set-up of his new novel -- a teenage girl disappears -- challenges Stewart O'Nan to tell us something new about a chilling situation that has been reported so often that it's close to being a cliche.

The first chapter follows 18-year-old Kim Larsen through what seems like an ordinary summer day in Kingsville, a small town near Cleveland. She takes her geeky younger sister, Lindsay, for a driving lesson, and treats her to lunch at Dairy Queen.

   
"SONGS FOR THE MISSING"

By Stewart O'Nan
Viking ($23.95)

   

Then she speeds off to meet her boyfriend and several other friends at the swimming hole in a nearby river. As new high school graduates, they are all biding their time with fast food and supermarket jobs until college begins in the fall.

Kim climbs into her car to drive to her shift at a gas station convenience store. She never arrives.

At this point, Kim seems like more of sketch than a real person. She becomes more fully realized as her family and friends begin their search for her, using every memory as a possible clue, or simply as a way to hold onto her.

By gradually revealing the effects of Kim's disappearance on those who love her, O'Nan, whose previous novels focus on dark side of human nature, creates a psychologically complex story.

The question of what happened to Kim informs the action, and the reader may feel manipulated by a few too many surprise twists in the crime investigation.

Ultimately, however, O'Nan's focus is more of a character study than a whodunit.

The narrative alternately follows Kim's parents, sister, boyfriend, and best friend as they are questioned by police, search the woods for evidence and try to move on with their lives.

Kim's father, Ed, jumps into every investigation so he can feel like he's doing something instead of waiting for bad news to find him. Her mother, Fran, copes by printing flyers, making television appeals for help, and planning community events to rally support. Not surprisingly, their relationship frays.

Kim's sister withdraws and concentrates on excelling in school until she finally escapes her gloomy home through a job at a fast-food restaurant.

Though Kim's best friend and boyfriend each go off to college and try to reinvent themselves, they cannot forget her. In one of the novel's most poignant scenes, the two best friends retrace a walk along a railroad track that they used to take with Kim, ending it by jumping off a bridge into the river.

O'Nan's use of details, such as the crazies who call the Larsens' toll-free hot line, and the coaching that Fran receives before her media appearances, give a believable, behind-the-scenes glimpse of what a grieving family must endure.

He also skillfully describes the Ohio landscape of frost-heaved streets, sandstone churches, and "fenced, overgrown farmland with tumbledown barns and marshy stands of weed trees."

It is these kinds of details, and the nuanced portraits of the important people in Kim's life, that make this novel succeed in spite of a set-up that smacks of sensationalism.


Clara Silverstein, a Pittsburgh native, is a freelance writer in the Boston area and author of the memoir "White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation" (University of Georgia Press) and two cookbooks.


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