Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger


A review by Maureen Corrigan led me to this book which begins with a physicist receiving a text on her phone from her college friend, then learning a few days later that her friend, a woman called Charlie, had died before it was sent.

The characters are almost all Ivy educated brilliant, appealing bi-coastal characters. The narrator and her friends are not without interest; Helen tells us about her work and conveys that is her focus. One of her more interesting life choices is to have a child on her own and she chooses a donor who is not a scientist.

Helen takes us on a wandering path through her time in college with her artistic best friend Charlie and Helen’s college boyfriend and later work collaborator Neel. She describes Charlie’s turn away from the academic field to avoid the advances of an all powerful professor.  The path takes us to Charlie’s marriage to Terrence and their child, Helen’s own son, Charlie’s parents, and the events after Charlie’s death. She often dips into esoteric physics that I heard as the sounds adults make in Charlie Brown cartoons. She mentions real physicists, including Chien-Shiung Wu, who worked on the Manhattan Project. For all her brilliance in scientific matters, Helen’s unexamined decision to use a sperm donor, chosen for odd reasons, stood out to me.

The repercussions of Charlie’s death, both the apparently other-worldly ones and the painful adjustments for Charlie’s nine year old daughter, her husband, and her parents are the focus. This devastating period in Helen’s own life is described in a gentle meandering tone with surprising sang-froid.  First her friend Charlie dies young and appears to communicate from beyond the grave. Then Helen’s hope that her former colleague Neel’s return to her university signals a greater intimacy between them is dashed when she learns that he is engaged. After Charlie’s husband and daughter move into her downstairs apartment to the benefit of the children, she finds her flare of interest in him isn’t returned. And the devastating election of that year (2016) is acknowledged.

I found Freudenberger’s work to be a fine novel, despite my inability to connect to the talk of black holes, Einstein, and the spacetime continuum. Helen’s independence, along with her wish for more intimate connections and her nicely depicted life as a mother made this an admirable book for me.

Nell Freudenberger, Lost and Wanted, Knopf, 2019, 336 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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