Review: Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan is a straightforward story about the disappearance of popular 18 year old Kim Larsen the summer after her high school graduation.  Told from the perspective of Kim (in the earliest chapters), her parents, her sister Lindsey, and her friends, O’Nan explores the impact of her disappearance on not only those closest to the missing girl, but their entire midwestern community.

The family does everything in their power to attempt to find their daughter, including search parties, public appearances, sound bites on the nightly news.  They distribute flyers, track down leads and squash rumors, but ultimately their efforts are futile and they must accept the fact that she is gone.  When public interest begins to wane, the family must carry on the search and keep their hopes alive with very little support.  

Lindsey, 15 years old, shy and awkward at the time of her sister’s disappearance, feels like a freak when she goes back to school in the fall.  Everyone is watching her, they all know who she is, they all know what her family is going through.  The change in Lindsey over the course of the book (3 years time) is perhaps the most dramatic, but everyone close to Kim is transformed by her disappearance in various ways. 

In one heartbreaking chapter called “Halftime Entertainment” the family holds a ceremony at the high school football game on Thanksgiving Day (Kim had been missing since June).  Her smiling face is everywhere on posters (“She would hate this,” one of her friends remarks), and the boosters are selling rainbow pins and wristbands.  The game is well attended due to an undefeated season, but the bleachers are sparsely populated during halftime.  The family thanks the school for contributing to the reward money for Kim’s safe return, then Kim’s mom asks the crowd to join hands and participate in a “Circle of Hope” which they soon see is pointless because whole sections of the bleachers are empty.  How quickly people move on. 

Songs for the Missing is more character driven than plot driven, and O’Nan really takes the time to richly develop these characters.  I felt so much sympathy for the parents and the sister and I completely understood who they were and what they were going through.  This is my second O’Nan book (Last Night at the Lobster was my first) and I do believe he is my new favorite author.  If anyone has read more of O’Nan’s work, I’d love suggestions on which of his books to read next. 

I received Songs for the Missing as part of Barnes and Noble’s First Look program (the discussion officially starts Monday June 2nd).  It will be available in stores October 30, 2008, and I suggest you run right out and get it as soon as you can!

Review: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan writes with such clarity in Last Night at the Lobster that you can almost smell the seafood gumbo and the Cheddar Bay biscuits.  At 146 pages, this is a spare, minimalist day-in-the-life novella about the lives of the employees at a shabby, downsized Red Lobster restaurant.

The entire story takes place on the last day of business for the New Britain, Connecticut branch of the Darden restaurant chain.  Manny De Leon is the dedicated general manager at The Lobster; he is the picture of corporate loyalty.  The company has decided to close the branch, although he can’t figure out why because his numbers haven’t been that bad.  He takes great pride in “his” store, following company policy to the letter.  

As Manny attempts to stick to the routine and make the best of the last day, the elements are against him.  A blizzard is bearing down, the snow is piling up.  Disgruntled employees come in late or not at all.  Guests are few and far between, although there is some craziness at lunch when a party of 14 comes in without a reservation.  They are understaffed and understocked, and Manny, leading by example as always, must pitch in on the floor and in the kitchen. 

There isn’t a lot of dramatic action, but there is so much emotion.  Manny’s entire adult life has been wrapped up in this job, a job he takes great pride in and can practically do with his eyes shut.  The other employees don’t have the same feelings toward the Lobster as he has; they seem to resent the job, one another, and probably Manny as well. 

Manny spends time snowblowing the sidewalk during the blizzard and looks almost lovingly at the glowing windows of the store through the storm.  For Manny, The Lobster is the haven in the chaos of his life. While ruminating on what to get his pregnant girlfriend Deena for Christmas, he also reminisces about his failed relationship with Jacquie, one of the waitresses.  Manny longs for Jacquie, but she has moved on, and it is much the same with The Lobster.  He is a company man, but the company is indifferent toward him.    

If you’ve ever worked in a chain restaurant during the holidays, or been a victim of corporate downsizing, you will recognize and relate to the staff at The Lobster.  Their minor human triumphs and tragedies are the stuff of every day life in middle America.  This is a powerful little story that will stay with you and one that I would highly recommend.  You will not be able to eat in a Red Lobster or Olive Garden ever again without thinking of Manny and his crew. 

Stewart O’Nan’s latest book, Songs for the Missing, will be out in October 2008, but I’ll be getting an Advanced Readers Copy through Barnes and Noble’s First Look program, so I’ll be writing about it here this summer.