In a time when it seems to happen all too often, the abduction of a child makes us all collectively cringe, it makes us want to ask “why?” knowing there is no good answer. We see it on TV shows, on billboards, on the news. But what about all the other ways a child can go missing? What about the runaways, the lost, the discarded or the child suppressed inside each adult that stays hidden from view but never completely dissipates? The Sweet Relief of Missing Children explores all of these issues, and many more, in a twisting, turning story of a variety of characters never quite happy in their own skin.
The Sweet Relief of Missing Children is broken up into six parts, each of the first five parts beginning with chapters of a 12-year-zcold girl named Leonora relaying how she was kidnapped and the sixth part imparting the story of a man who interacted with her on the day she went missing. We learn from the very beginning, in Leonora’s own words, that she will disappear.
Leonora’s story is by far the most compelling and heartbreaking part of the book. As a parent it was hard to read as she explained that she had been taught all the warning signs of “stranger danger” and what to do if she found herself in a difficult situation. She nonetheless lets her instinct to help others take over and finds herself locked in a rumpus room basement, still never believing that any true harm would come to her. Byron, the man who elicited Leonora’s advice on how to get closer to his own daughter – and who I was convinced for the majority of the book would be the person who kidnapped her – finds that Leonora’s advice allows him to open up to his teenage daughter in a way he never thought he could and who, ultimately, brings them back together.
The rest of the chapters are devoted to a menagerie of characters and could be hard to follow as it skips around between people and time periods and, often, has the various characters interact without having previously known each other. At times I had to actually scroll back through the book to make sure I had my characters straight and could keep the backstories I had already learned in order. I would have found it more fulfilling to have had fewer characters that had more developed story lines. Still, the themes that continually popped up throughout – children looking for acceptance and love, teenagers looking for freedom and exploration, adults looking for the life they always imagined they should live – helped showcase the concept that a person doesn’t have to be physically absent to be missing.
The Sweet Relief of Missing Children is one of those books that does not shy away from exploring themes of society that many of us think about but rarely speak of. Every emotion, except maybe pure happiness, is dissected and many of the characters engage in actions that make them hard to sympathize with. If you’re looking for “happy ever after” in your stories then this book is definitely not for you. However, if you enjoy a multi-layered exploration of love, loss, desire and dissatisfaction then it is worth a try as the author does a very good job of presenting these sometimes unsavory topics.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W. W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.