In a novel that bridges years and has at its core a missing girl, twelve-year-old Leonora, Braunstein explores the labyrinthine terrain of childhood. While the parameters of girlhood remain cautionary (“She understood that you could be too curious, but you couldn’t be too pretty”), by no means are young boys exempt from the random vicissitudes of their fate. The cast of characters shifts from protagonist Leonora, who has been carefully coached in rebuffing strangers, to the fractured relationships of mothers, daughters and sons attempting unsuccessfully to decipher the maze of parental affection. Inhabiting the skins of rebellious teens, male and female, with an uncanny familiarity, the author refuses to be restricted to the predictable conflicts of parent and child.
She digs deeply into the hearts of young mothers in a world still filled with dreams, imagining more than domesticity and dull husbands who offer emotional security but no danger. These same women will raise daughters who dismiss them with disdain, unable to imagine a mother once young and restless as well: “It was never too early to illuminate the harsh truth of the matter to a girl.” Heady stuff and emotionally layered as each relationship unfolds, the yawning chasm of mothers and daughters seemingly impenetrable, fathers silent witnesses as their girls turn from laughing children to surly adolescents. Throughout, the longing for the innocence of childhood is pervasive, of daughters born and not born, sons lost, impulsive behavior, “anything to lay claim to whatever feeling you fear the most.” Girls become mothers and face the same rejection they inflicted, a rolling stone of expectations in collision with reality.
A sense of barely suppressed violence is so close to the skin in these chapters that I finish (with relief) only to recognize that violence as the damage inflicted on innocents, generation upon generation of children trying to make order of childhood confusion. There are no unconscious victims of life’s random blows; each is felt viscerally, acknowledged, individuals given to intense self-reflection and moments of transcendent understanding. This is a novel of survivors, a ragged army of the sons and daughters of sons and daughters searching for peace through acts of conformity and rebellion. With the precision of a surgeon, Braunstein slices through layers of tissue and fat to the very marrow of childhood dependency and the compromises made in the name of love.