MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: When my dad died some years ago, a friend attempted to console me by describing in detail a dream she'd had in which the phone rang and her recently deceased mother was on the line, ready to chat. Apparently, this is a pretty common experience for those in mourning. I'm still waiting for that catch-up call from beyond the grave. But the heroine of Nell Freudenberger's new novel "Lost And Wanted" suffers no such delays.
Helen Clapp introduces herself to readers by recalling the morning she looked down at her cellphone and saw the name Charlie pop up. Charlie was Helen's best friend in college, but the two women, now middle-aged, only erratically keep in touch. Helen answers and hears a weird shuffling sound before she's disconnected. Annoyed, she tries to return the call, but no one picks up. The next day, Helen gets another call - this one from Charlie's landline. It's Charlie's husband, calling to let Helen know that Charlie died two days earlier. From this classic creeper premise, Freudenberger has crafted a literary novel that grapples with grief, midlife regret and with the disruptive possibility of life after death. Because Helen is a distinguished professor of physics at MIT, she feels equipped to argue rationally against ghosts. But even after she learns that Charlie's cell phone disappeared immediately after her death and that the post-mortem calls and texts she's still receiving are probably from a troll, Helen is shaken.
In her superb 2003 debut short story collection "Lucky Girls" and the richly imagined novels that followed, "The Dissident" and "The Newlyweds," Freudenberger explored clashes of cultures. What would happen, for instance, if a Chinese artist or a Bangladeshi bride were transplanted to America? In this novel, the clash of cultures theme informs the tension between science and religion and extends to sharp observations about social groupings. Here, for instance, Helen describes Harvard in the 1990s, where she met Charlie.
(Reading) In our era at Harvard, there were various distinct types: the international students, the children of immigrants, the scattering of anonymous valedictorians from all across the country. And then there were the kids from New York - the rich ones, nearly all white with some Saudi royalty thrown in, whose fathers and grandfathers had gone to Harvard. I would have said then that Charlie and I - an upper-middle-class black girl from Brookline and a work-study white science nerd from Pasadena - didn't fit into any category, and that's why we were eventually drawn to each other. Now I think that the boxes we used to sort ourselves into were nothing more than comforting fictions, like Bohr's atomic model, which is so pretty and so sensible, its particles orbiting the nucleus like a miniature sun and planets. This is in spite of its incompatibility with everything we now know about the very tiniest pieces into which the world can be broken.
That passage itself is a miniature model of Freudenberger's writing style in "Lost And Wanted." Helen's thoughts often leapfrog from a smart social observation to a digression on physics to an emotional epiphany about human existence. At Charlie's memorial service, Helen is reunited with Charlie's husband Terrance (ph) and her wise-child daughter Simi (ph), who's about a year older than Helen's own 8-year-old son. Terrance and Simi have moved in with Charlie's parents, but the arrangement is tense. After a few months, Helen, who's a single mom, agrees to let the two rent an apartment in her house. That this plot twist doesn't feel contrived, nor does it melt into the kind of gooey resolution that we readers may secretly root for, testifies to the originality of Freudenberger's odd and penetrating imagination.
Freudenberger was hailed as a literary phenom when she published her first story in The New Yorker at the age of 26. Now, like her characters, she's middle-aged. Through Helen, Freudenberger dramatizes the dawning midlife awareness that life doesn't always allow for second chances, but she also grants Helen the midlife consolation prize of a greater appreciation for those chances she has been given. By the end of "Lost And Wanted," the jury is still out on the big questions of life after death and the existence of God, but there's a moment - just a moment - in the physics lab when time seems to contract, and Helen is knocked out by an MIT version of transcendence. It's no exaggeration for me to say that I pretty much felt the same way after finishing this gorgeous novel.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Lost And Wanted" by Nell Freudenberger. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Robert Caro about his award-winning biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses or with actor Christopher Meloni, who starred in "Law And Order: SVU" and now co-stars in the SyFy series "Happy!," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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