Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan, is a novel of a parent's worst nightmare: a child gone missing. As wonderfully written as it is, Songs is still a tough one to read.
Kim Larsen is a normal 18-year-old, spending her last summer at home before college, working at the Conoco station and hanging out with her friends. When she fails to show up for the evening shift, her friends — Nina, Elise, and her boyfriend J.P.– wonder what happened to her. Her parents — Ed, a real-estate agent and Fran, a hospital administrator — worry about her; and Lindsey, Kim's younger sister, doesn't know what to think. The police don't consider Kim's disappearance necessarily something to investigate immediately, because she is an adult and can go where she will. As the clock ticks, Ed organizes search parties, stapling fliers to every surface within walking distance, and Fran steels herself to meet with the media. Hours turn to days, and days turn to weeks, and Kim's family and friends must adapt to the knowledge that she is no longer there.
Stewart O'Nan puts himself in the place of every parent's most agonizing fear in this book. Like Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, we follow a family dealing with the loss of a child and also see the effects on her closest friends. Unlike Bones, however, there is no omniscient story teller. The reader knows no more about Kim's fate than those who love her, and it is an uncomfortable place to be. In a familiar pattern (see the television show Dead Like Me, as well as The Lovely Bones) the father must do something, so he searches; the mother, who must also find a way to cope, reaches out beyond the family; the sibling struggles with feelings of jealously and guilt.
Stewart O'Nan is an interesting author, a great imaginer of all things American. His last book, Last Night at the Lobster, portrayed the closing of a Red Lobster restaurant with great affection and understanding and was a phenomenal read for anyone who had ever worked in a fast-food restaurant; and for those who hadn't, they came away knowing (and probably glad of) what they missed. In Songs for the Missing, however, he has chosen a topic with which it is hard to win. He renders it bravely, but without something hopeful or redeeming, and we are left with a chronicle of pain and grief. While sensitive and beautifully drawn, it is still a sad, gray picture.