Opening with a cheery note written by Alexandra to her husband followed by her happily leaving her home to meet up with a friend, she heads off on the train, this being the last anyone will see of Alexandra before she vanishes. Husband Tom is devastated by her unsolved disappearance and he devotes his life to passing out fliers and trying to find any slim trail that might explain what has happened to his wife. Meanwhile, Jane, who has spent the last 17 years raising her son, still more than a little in love with his father, is sort of treading water when she, her successful artist sister Elle, and web designer Leslie are trapped in an stalled elevator with Tom at a concert. When Jane recognizes the Alexandra on Tom's fliers as an older version of her best friend from high school, a tentative alliance is formed in order to bring more attention to Alexandra's case.
All of the characters' lives revolve around the empty space Alexandra left behind but as time goes on, even as they continue to search and hope, they all learn to live their lives around the loss. Tom's sadness is palpable throughout the novel. He and Alexandra's mother lean on each other, believing in the impossible while Alexandra's brother and father seem to hold Tom responsible in some way. Jane jumps into the search for Alexandra thinking of her old friend and the way that they drifted apart when Jane got pregnant and Alexandra went on to college. Since Jane's life took a left turn, she has not only raised her son as a single mom, but she's been there for her ex as he waltzed through women, and has taken care of her flighty but incredibly gifted sister and their cantankerous mother. With her son finishing up high school, Jane's life is at a crossroads. Elle is childlike despite her powerful artistic gift and Jane's careful caretaking has allowed her to indulge in self-destructive behaviours driven by her manic depressive swings. Leslie, the one perfect stranger in the elevator, is reclusive, such a loner her neighbor, smelling something bad from her apartment calls the police, certain that Leslie has died in there. When she agrees to help design a website in hopes of finding new clues into Alexandra's disappearance, she starts to come out of her shell, making friends and choosing life instead of just waiting to die of the breast cancer that decimated her entire family. All of the characters face new beginnings in the wake of Alexandra's vanishing and while it initially seems impossible for each of them to wake up to the importance and potentials of their lives, they do indeed come to see the beauty in love, friendship, and new starts.
While the tone of the book could be overwhelmingly sad, and at times it is, McPartlin has managed to avoid making the novel one of nothing but loss, even though each of the characters' stories are indeed pervaded by loss. Alexandra's disappearance is the mystery around which all of the other characters' lives revolve, the reason they all meet in fact, but this is really more the story of how people carry on and how they face the next day and the next and the next and ultimately how they must go on to find some happiness in the world no matter how great the sadness weighing them down. The characters, are, in the end, to greater and lesser degree, hopeful. They've created connections amongst themselves and the reader certainly feels a connection to them as well. They are complex and interesting and well thought out characters.
The structure of the novel can be a bit choppy, as is often the case with ensemble casts of characters, with all of them being the focus of sections in turn. But it is important to see all of the characters fully so the structure needs to be this way. Alexandra, is of course, most present in her absence. And because of this absence, the reader will want a resolution to her story. But resolution is not the theme here and so the idea of renewal and continuation takes center stage. And while the reader does eventually discover a little of the mystery, the end of the book continues on, as befitting the theme. The cover here will appeal to readers of chick lit but there's a wealth of very serious topics covered within these pages. These topics add quite a bit to the story, taking this from the superficial to some surprising depths. The writing is not maudlin and the characters peopling the pages shine out of the pages. This is a devastating, hopeful, very good read.
Thanks to Sarah at Pocket Books for sending me a review copy of this book.