Our penultimate edition of The Novel of Now series features Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger’s New York Times Best-Seller. The novel was published this April and was one of the 9 books included in Brandon Williams’ class, The Novel of Now. Read on to see how Brandon’s class responded to Lost and Wanted.
In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.
As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.
After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.
Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger
Quick Synopsis: When a world-renowned scientist gets a text message from her recently-deceased best friend, she finds herself questioning the rules of reality that she has always known.
In Nell Freudenberger’s novel, Lost and Wanted, the reader is taken through the perspective of Helen, a successful physicist whose longtime friend, Charlie, just recently passed away. On top of grief, Helen has to deal with the fact that she is also getting messages from the presumably stolen phone of Charlie. Who can she tell? What does this all mean? Is it a ghost or somebody playing games with her? Those around her don’t seem to think anything of the situation, but Helen knows deep inside the messages sent to her had to mean something more than just a scammer who was able to make it look like Charlie’s email address.
This novel is filled with references to the struggles that Charlie, a young Black woman at an Ivy league and then eventually Hollywood, had to deal with in her life. From a director wanting her to write the script for a Black character based on her “experiences” to when she began acting, she would be told that the character she was auditioning for wasn’t “ethnic” and that she didn’t have the right look for the part. These types of assumptions and discriminations against women of color are still ever relevant in the world today. This novel is a light source that focuses reader’s attention to some of the larger issues in the world, racial prejudices, and how the people put in those situations choose to adapt, even though they shouldn’t have to. Charlie was a great character that Freudenberger uses to highlight assumptions made about African Americans in modern society and this allows the reader to then have a larger take away from the novel.
However, the reader is taken along Helen’s life in the aftermath of Charlie’s death when the book jacket made it seem as though the novel was going to be a ghost story where a rational woman is going to try and come to terms with or rationalize what is happening and cannot. Continuing along in the novel, belief in ghosts is continually squashed as it is brought up and repeatedly pushed against. This may be taxing for the reader, as all of the characters were convinced this wasn’t a ghost at all and just somebody on the other end of the phone who has stolen it. The book jacket reads, “She is forced to question the laws of the universe that had always steadied her mind and heart.” Well, halfway into the novel there was no sign of any questioning happening on Helen’s part. If the characters don’t believe there is a ghost then why should the reader? At that point the hook is dissolved and the reader is left wondering why they should even read on. One could argue that she humored the idea only momentarily, and then her reasoning kicked in and the ideas were swiftly swept away. However, it isn’t as interesting to read about an individual just confirming their own beliefs over and over again for 150 pages. Where are the events that propel the plot forward?
The class had the same reaction with this particular book: One, the cover was aesthetically pleasing; and two, this book was not the best. The problem with this book was that the plot was weak and the characters lacked personality. The plot was about how Helen lost her best friend and she is getting texts from her best friend who is supposed to be dead. Instead of reacting like how a regular person would act, she just ignores it. The problem wasn’t that this was wrong or immoral, it was just unusual. Most of us were expecting this to have a significant impact on the main character but it doesn’t.
Another problem that everyone in this class had was that half of the book’s pages did not contribute to the plot. These pages are just about the world of physics. There were times where it seemed like it was trying to intertwine with what was happening by using physics as a metaphor. However, it mainly sounds very dense to a reader who is not interested in this kind of subject. This deviates from the actual plot so the reader might forget what the focus is supposed to be, or they stop caring.
In relating physics to the world, Lost and Wanted, by Nell Fruendenberger, does the job at exhibiting how the main character, Helen, makes sense of the world and her emotions around her. The main problem I had with this book is the lack of plot concerning Helen and her character. Nothing truly extravagant has upended her life to have filled the pages to what they are now. Helen gets a call from an old friend, Charlie, one whom she hadn’t had contact in several years or so, then finds out she had passed away, then wonders who has Charlie’s phone. Helen doesn’t have a reason to be involved to the people who had known Charlie, but somehow, she is pushed into this force.
Much worse, Helen, as a character, seems so detached from her emotions, and so over in her head. Never once did I feel that Helen was grieving, but this could be because of the excessive scientific terms used to explain how Helen sees herself and the world around her. She also has a son but doesn’t seem to care about what he wants. For whatever reason, Fruedenberger adds a slight love interest, but I didn’t see the point of this love interest, seeing as we only see them through flashbacks, and barely see them interact in the present timeline.
Another thing that bothered me is the character, Charlie. She’s dead, but she’s the center of attention in this book. I never got to understand her or know her unless it was through Helen’s flashback. Even then, Charlie never developed as a character for me—though this is true for all the characters in this book. I think Charlie seems to be built as this perfect and hardworking girl, but this is never really seen in the book. This book is not terrible, but it’s definitely not one I would pick up or would be interested in picking up, seeing as the book jacket would probably deter me (I’m not one for grief stories).
Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams