Considering having kids? Feeling ambivalent about it? Be warned that Sarah Braunstein’s debut novel, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, is a powerful reminder of just how fraught parent-child relationships can be. Set in the northeast from 1980 through the 1990s, the interconnected scenes and stories that compose this interesting book showcase children who both willfully (running away, acting out, taking sides in divorce) and unintentionally (wandering off, getting lost, being abducted) cause their parents no end of grief. Of course, their parents cause them grief, too. And yet these children, strong-willed and resourceful, face even tragedies such as orphan-hood and kidnapping with impressive aplomb.
Structurally, the book is not so much a novel as a mosaic of defining moments in the lives of key sets of characters. Divided into five distinct sections, the book’s structure makes it difficult to speak in terms of protagonists, for some of the most compelling characters appear only briefly, while new ones crop up fairly late in the book. All of this is artfully executed, with the precise touch of a writer whose power lies not in any spectacularly plotted storyline but in the careful orchestration of many rich details. In place of a conventional plot, Braunstein uses the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl—the immensely likeable and movingly depicted Leonora—to hold the panorama together. As both a hook and a shaping device, this approach works well; Leonora’s chapters introduce each of the five sections, so that the reader is compelled to keep reading, to find out what will happen to Leonora as well as the other characters.
The timeline begins in 1980, with a 10-year-old boy named Paul. Like Leonora, Paul is smart, inquisitive, and emotionally attuned. His mother, the gorgeous, tipsy but well-meaning Goldie, has been spied on for years by a fellow single parent, peeping Thomas. He works at an abortion clinic, reminding us of one consequence of so many unwanted children. In another manifestation of this theme both his daughter, Jade, and young Paul are abandoned—Jade by the mother who did not want her, and Paul by Goldie, who leaves him home alone on his birthday in order to go on a date with a hippie “artist” she believes might advance her career.
Despite the heavy subject matter, an undercurrent of necessary humor keeps Sweet Relief’s’ pages free of melodrama, while subtly asserting the absurdity of life. Even when Paul, at the end of Part 1, does something bizarrely awful and shocking we believe it. For while the outward “theme” of disappearance, loneliness and emotional pain unites all of these individual stories, the broader question that interests Braunstein is a primordial one applicable to all of us: “Why do some people get what they want and others don’t?”
Braunstein’s writing is a pleasure. She excels at internal narratives and impressionistic characterizations that encompass not just personalities but relationships and family dynamics. Take, for instance, this description of Leonora’s father,
an economist. An economist who doesn’t pay his own bills! He pontificated on the debt of nations while his wife wrote the checks. He loved the cost of things: highways, banks, dams, rails, turbines, aqueducts. Other stuff too, stuff most people didn’t think had a cost, like places, like diseases, like future events that hadn’t happened yet but might, and what then? …He loved newspapers and old books and not shaving. Crumbs in the pockets of his cardigan. Wet brown eyes, a pink nose, fingernails his wife reminded him to clip.
At times Braunstein’s treatment of her motif—befuddled parents saddled with children they didn’t plan on having—can come across as heavy-handed, for these narratives are rife with unwanted pregnancies and parents who say things like, “This child is killing me.” All of the female characters get pregnant too young—in one case, only to be harassed and chased by obsessed anti-abortionists—while Leonora’s father and Paul’s mother seem to want their children to grow up too fast, not to be children at all. Yet as confused as these children may be or become, they are never merely innocent, or merely victims—they are willful, knowing, self-actualizing, aware.
If you’ve ever wondered why nice boys choose bad girls, read Sweet Relief’s Part 2, set a decade or so later, in which a boy named Sam (an orphan now in high school) wrestles with his budding sexuality and the hi jinx of his troublesome, reckless cousin, Judith (the rebellious product of an unintended pregnancy.) While I found this storyline less compelling than others, I remained moved by Braunstein’s careful expression of her characters’ nuanced psyches. She finds words for the most minute emotional observations, such as this one by the teenage Sam, who believes he is in love with his classmate Helen: “He wished he’d dreamed about her so that he could say, simply, ‘I dreamed about you.’ He wanted badly to say romantic things and for them to be true.”
Sam is one of the better-drawn male characters. In general, the author seems to know her female protagonists more deeply, while men like Thomas and the adult Paul seem agents of the plot more so than real people. It is largely Sam’s adolescent contemplations that render him believable: “He reasoned that this was what love meant—a merger between one part of you that’s been waiting for the other part.”
This is a book filled with many such small, wise observations. A girl’s attraction to the young man she will marry is described as “a long, high quivering note held inside her body.” A mother, breaking painful news to her son, finds the words she uses “hard, falsely small. She coughed, to put something between herself and them.”
The dialogue, too, is a pleasure to read, for it retains the comedy of human conversation even in the most excruciating of moments. Here are the trouble-making Judith’s unfortunate parents—Hank and Grace—reporting to the police that their daughter has run away with a dubious character:
“Q-Ball,” she said to the cop, who rubbed his chin, said, “He got a last name?”
She had never felt smaller in her life.
The cop said, “Hey, I feel for you. We’ll check it against our lists of known aliases, but I can’t promise much.”
He wrote something in his notepad, said, “Kids these days…” It wasn’t clear whether he meant Judith or Q-Ball.
“What else? You got a physical description?”
Hank described the facial hair. Then he said, “He may have a transmittable disease.”
The cop’s pen hovered above his notepad. “Like the flu?”
“Like—warts,” Hank said.
The cop stared at them. Then he wrote it down.
In Part 2, the novel’s plot begins to feel recognizably manipulated, and certain characters seem more explicitly fictional than genuine. A scene in a porn shop between Sam’s adoptive mother and Helen feels forced—more of a writing exercise than an attempt at truth. And while Part 3, too, functions to advance the plot, it does not draw the reader closer to that section’s protagonists. By Part 4, I was having trouble keeping track of the decades and the many coincidences that are necessary in order for Braunstein’s disparate sketches to fit together.
It was therefore a pleasure, if a tense and uncomfortable one, to finally be allowed to stay with Leonora in Part 5. At that point, the chapters become shorter—many are internal musings/memories/impressions more so than scenes—as if deferring to the suspense that has been created. And despite the reader’s horror in contemplating Leonora’s fate, and a conclusion that—again—feels manipulated, the novel is ultimately satisfying for having remained true to the author’s vision of children as remarkable—if disturbingly malleable—beings.