When She Was Gone by Gwendolen Gross is about a seventeen-year-old girl who goes missing just before she is about to go off to college. This is what happens in Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, but the author lightens up the story by letting the reader know early on that Linsey Hart had left a note before leaving her house very early that summer morning and that the note had gone missing. Everyone is worried about her disappearance, but readers know that at least she was safe when she left. As the story progresses from Day One onward, concern over the missing girl and her family grows among the neighbors and families in the suburban town, but also a heightened sense of drama and sympathy fatigue, as time passes.
Many people in Linsey’s town – her mother, her little brothers, her ex-boyfriend Timmy, her school friends, her neighbor, the woman she babysits for – know something about Linsey that not everyone knows. But no one knows where she is, whether she has been abducted, or why she would leave of her own accord when she was so close to leaving town anyway. Readers also don’t know any of these things.
The story moves around – settling briefly on one character, then moving to the next, beginning with Linsey’s next-door neighbor, the solitary and eccentric piano teacher, Mr. Leonard. Reading, we gather bits of evidence from each, piecing together an outline of what happened from what each person has seen or knows. The chapter headings list neighborhood addresses (24 Sycamore St., 26 Sycamore St., etc.) cluing readers in that the focus is shifting from one character to another. Linsey’s family has already been broken and put back together after a tragedy several years ago; Linsey and her mother are both still fragile. Several neighbors have secrets they would prefer not to have revealed to their neighbors in the course of a police investigation. It quickly becomes clear how little we really know even when we observe something. Also, how little we really know about even our closest neighbors.
This is a quiet story, not a shocking one or a suspenseful one. If you go into it looking for something like The Lovely Bones or Gone Girl, you’re going to be disappointed. When She Was Gone is more of a psychological novel. It doesn’t go deep into the family’s emotional reservoir the way Songs for the Missing does, but stays closer to the factual surface of the story, reporting characters’ thoughts, allowing readers to read between the lines, and getting down to the nub of dissatisfaction at the heart of suburban life.
When She Was Gone is the author’s fifth novel. The multiple points of view and writing style reminded me in some ways of Kate Morgenroth. The author’s writing style may have also seemed familiar to me because I’ve read The Other Mother by her, which came out in 2007. The characters in When She Was Gone are well drawn and memorable; I enjoyed reading this study of a suburban town in subdued crisis mode.
Here’s an excerpt from the end of the first chapter of When She Was Gone:
Later, when they came to question him, Mr. Leonard would try to be faithful to the morning. He remembered the note, but assumed they already knew. He remembered a lot of things, but only answered their questions. By then, the word “vanished” had wafted into his windows like the stray spittle that worked its way from rain through the screens. But vanished, Mr. Leonard thought, was a relative term. Linsey knew where she was, he thought, Linsey knew what she was seeing and hearing, what tastes touched her tongue.
He’d seen her seeing him. It wasn’t as if he could help himself – it wasn’t as if he was really living in his body – sometimes at the piano, sometimes inside the music. Mr. Leonard knew something about Linsey, something secret. But then, he had secrets of his own; he understood, and he wasn’t telling.
When She Was Gone
$16.00 US/$18.99 CAN
Disclosure: I won this book in a giveaway from My Book Views.