Brown mixes past and present in a novel that brings them into collision, but not in the manner one would expect. The Longings of Wayward Girls begins with the disappearance of nine-year-old Laura Loomis in the woods behind her home in Wintonbury, Connecticut, in 1974. Four years later, the girl's disappearance still hangs over the town, though the vigilance of parents has lessened with the passage of time. The woods have become familiar terrain for Sadie Watkins and her best friend, Betty, though Sadie's uncanny resemblance to Loomis often reminds them of the fearful time in 1974.
On the cusp of her teens, twelve-year-old Sadie has yet to relinquish childhood games, clinging to the small comfort of easier times. But looming adolescence has made her more aware of her relationship with her glamorous, unhappy mother, Clare, a local theater actress with self-destructive tendencies that further confuse her daughter. Playing dressup with best friend Betty is a distraction. The girls recreate colonial times and dramatize old tragedies, avoiding pesky younger girl Francie Bingham, who follows them through the woods and begs to be included. There are letters left to a secret boyfriend, though Sadie's imagines a very real boy, the older Ray Filley, who lives nearby. It isn't surprising that a childhood prank evolves, a deception of Francie that has unexpected results.
Years later, in 2003, Sadie is married with two children and still mourning a recent loss when she runs into Ray Filley, newly returned to town. When the inevitable sparks fly between them, Sadie is particularly vulnerable, though Ray's appearance also reignites old memories from that fateful year: another lost girl and her own mother's insistent flirtation with death. It is here that Brown reverts both to the predictable and the outlandish, as her protagonist becomes more tethered to the past than the present, reacting to adult circumstances as though she is still an impulsive adolescent. It's almost as if Sadie reverts to that year, shedding any maturity she might have gained to pursue the fantasies of her childhood.
Chapters move between past and present, tying unresolved issues to the summer when two young girls created a fantasy world out of books and old clothes, Sadie secretly dreaming of Ray Filley while viewing her mother's behavior with increasing confusion. Brown allows Sadie to revert to that age, to act as if she is still powerless, still in thrall to the unopposed strictures of the adult world. As Sadie reminisces over her own behavior and that of her mother, Brown reveals an abundance of details that grow both boring and redundant, weighing down the novel and masking Sadie's actions behind the those of a much younger girl.
There truly are ugly things that happen in this place in real time, that happened in 1979: the abuse of a helpless child, suicide attempts, drunkenness, the usual horrors covered up by a society not yet at the level of later generations, the wholesale acknowledgment of sins. A consummate watcher, Sadie is not ignorant of the circumstances around her, either as a child or as an adult, but she never takes action, only witnesses, speculating with her friend as another suffers. Later, Sadie has an opportunity to intervene, to expose what might have happened all those years before, but she doesn't.
This calculated distance ultimately damages this character's development, her blatant self-indulgence as a mother and reckless disregard for others even in her grief. Sadie is, after all, Brown's construction. In feeding the plot's romantic theme, Sadie's failings, while understandable, cannot withstand scrutiny, a quasi-happily-ever-after ending putting the cherry on the top of this fluffy desert.