There has been, in recent years, an almost weird wealth of fiction about women who disappear.
Bestseller lists have been replete with page-turners about female abductions and vanishings: Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, Room and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? come immediately to mind. Does the world really need another?
Maybe not, but readers can be thankful that Toronto-based author Rebecca Rosenblum did not concern herself with the perils of entering an overcrowded market. Her debut novel, So Much Love, approaches its subject and tells its characters’ stories with so much heart and sharp efficiency that you can sit down with it for a day and feel a shift in the way you look at life. You will not want to put it down – well, I certainly didn’t. But this is a page-turner of a different sort. This is not a thriller. This is a meditation on life and love that thrills.
There’s certainly a whodunit element, but So Much Love – which was recently nominated for the prestigious Amazon.ca First Novel Award – has a far more crucial mystery at its core: How does one go on after the worst thing has happened?
It’s not only the big picture that’s explored; the tiny mechanics of life after a searing tragedy are imagined tautly and vividly: How do you manage to feed yourself, go back to work, do your homework, ride the bus?
In fictional Iria, a Canadian university town, Catherine Reindeer, a married student in her 20s, has gone missing. Before she disappeared, the town was rocked by another apparent abduction: Donny Zimmerman, a high-school student.
Their stories are told from different perspectives, each chapter dealing with someone connected to these two. The characters’ proximity to Catherine and Donny varies – from a spouse or parent to those with more tenuous ties, such as a woman who waitressed with Catherine at the restaurant where she was last seen. We also meet the vanished themselves.
“How could a parent ever trust that disaster wasn’t coming in the next beat?” Catherine contemplates, preabduction, when her husband, Grey, proposes procreation. “Having a child was too much risk, too much wagered on a single, frail vulnerable body. How could they survive the loss?”
And this is the essence of the book: How do you survive the loss – of a wife, a child, a boyfriend, the roaring emotions that made you marry the now-stranger sitting next to you in the car? This is a book, as the title suggests, about love – how it can rip you apart, how it can fix you back up and the colossal damage its absence can inflict.
It is a layered, ever-unfurling exploration of this theme. Take the memories that swirl in the brains of those left behind. Catherine, for instance, put huge amounts of cilantro in her salads and made her Bloody Marys with pickle brine, Grey remembers. Donny drew a kitten on the sole of his sneaker, his girlfriend, Kyla, recalls, and once gagged on a peanut and couldn’t stop coughing all day. “Who cared about those things? Maybe only Kyla. Or maybe also anyone who loved Donny.”
You read these passages and can’t help but think about the little intimate quirks that combine to create the people you love – or even yourself. What will people remember about you when you are gone – the tiny habits, unremarkable in life, that become enormous in absentia?
Catherine is studying the work of a local poet Julianna Ohlin when she disappears. Ohlin (also fictional) was killed in her 20s; her husband the prime suspect. There are repeated references to Sometimes the Door Sticks, her poem about prying a stuck door open with a butter knife. The butter knife becomes a stand in for love. It is not a powerful weapon, but consider the power of the home-baked cookies of your childhood, the place settings at the family table, the familiar sound of the cutlery drawer rolling open. When we are stuck, these are the kinds of things that will save us. That will unstick us. Let us out the door – or let us in.
Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train may have been roaring successes – and I enjoyed them both – but they did not send me into this sort of deep contemplation. This is what I mean about So Much Love having the kind of impact that can alter the way you look at life. This is a feat.
Marsha Lederman is the Globe’s western arts correspondent.Report Typo/Error