When Ava Lark and her son Lewis move into their new neighborhood, they are looked at slightly askance by the neighbors. Ava is a divorced single mother who has to work to support her son in their shabby rental on the outskirts of their safe, suburban neighborhood. If being divorced and rather glamorous looking isn't bad enough in Cold War era 1956, Ava is also Jewish, adding to her outsider status and making the WASP neighbors more suspicious of her differences. Smart as a whip Lewis also struggles to fit in, eventually becoming close friends with Jimmy and Rose, who come the closest to being like him since their mother is also a single mother, albeit widowed rather than divorced. Lewis develops a crush on the slightly older Rose while Jimmy worships Lewis' mother Ava. The three children spend almost all of their spare time together, running free through the neighborhood and only coming home for dinner and bed. But this time of innocence and friendship is abruptly shattered when Jimmy goes missing, presumed kidnapped, and the simmering suspicions and resentments of the neighbors look towards Ava and her unconventional life, as somehow involved in his disappearance. Time drags on without any information or clues to Jimmy's whereabouts and slowly, inexorably, life starts to grind on again. Rose and her mother, broken by loss, move away from the neighborhood. And so Lewis loses both of his friends, the people who kept him anchored and included.
Both Rose and Lewis grow up in the shadow of guilt and paralyzing loss. Neither of them ever healed emotionally, Lewis drifting and directionless in his life and Rose alone and closed off to any real, deep, and lasting relationship. They are truly damaged souls, blaming themselves for not being with Jimmy when whatever overcame him occurred. When sister and friend reconnect years later in their adult lives, they struggle to share their feelings and overcome the weight of so many formative years even as they work together to discover finally what happened to Jimmy that long ago evening that spun their world off its axis and to search for the absolution that will allow them to accept and move on from their tragedy.
There is a melancholy sadness to this novel even before Jimmy's disappearance. Both Lewis and his mother, Ava, are so alone and such outsiders that their loneliness pervades the text long before events threaten to crush them. Once Jimmy disappears and the neighborhood bands together to try and make sense of the unimaginable, the suspense increases but, as must be the sad truth in real life missing children's cases, it eventually peaks and then wanes again as it becomes clear that Jimmy's case won't be solved. Leavitt has done a phenomenal job building up to the disappearance and in portraying the emotions and tensions in its aftermath, both immediate and long term. She's captured the way in which the pain of such a seminal tragedy can affect those close to it, changing them, scarring them forever. But the denouement when Lewis and Rose come together as adults trying to piece together the truth of that evening stretched credibility. Despite the tangle at the end and the revelations that are just too convenient, the book is thought provoking and well written. And it addresses the concept of acceptance and otherness from a very different angle than most novels. This is not a happy book, pervaded as it is with a mournful and heavyhearted brooding but it is one that will keep the reader thinking about guilt, judgment, and absolution through all of its pages.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.