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!