Waiting to Surface
Emily Listfield
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Waiting to Surface
Emily Listfield
Washington Square Press
336 pages
August 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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What would you do if your beloved husband (albeit, one you had been having major problems with) disappeared without a trace? At one point or another, in the deep dark places of the mind, every woman has asked herself what she would do if her husband passed away or was diagnosed with a terminal disease. But disappearing without a trace? That ambiguity, that lack of closure is enough to make the sanest woman go mad with the frustration of not knowing – did he die or did he leave us? What exactly happened that night?

Waiting to Surface by Emily Listfield tackles these difficult questions with a grace and poise that seems impossible to maintain, given the ambiguity of the situation. Sarah Larkin, a successful magazine editor, receives a phone call from the Florida police. Her estranged husband, Todd, a once-promising but now-floundering sculptor, has disappeared. His disappearance is reported by his ex-girlfriend, who hasn’t seen him for four days. Though this is simply the opening premise, question after question erupts in Sarah’s mind, as well as in the mind of the reader. Why was he in Florida? What was he doing with his ex-girlfriend? Was he having an affair? Why did she wait four days to report him missing? As Sarah’s head spins with the multitude of queries and lack of answers, she eventually hires a private detective to uncover any missing information in the ongoing investigation.

At the same time, Sarah has issues to deal with at work. She deals with the situation by immersing herself in work, desperately trying to keep herself busy so she doesn’t have to think of Todd. The main concern of everyone around her seems to be the dropping circulation numbers of the magazine. At the same time, she gets the green light to start testing a new magazine of her own, but major shakeups at the magazine leave Sarah wondering whether she will be fired from her current position. Listfield’s insider look at the world of magazine editing is interesting, but it doesn’t seem as well-written as the main storyline, coming across as somewhat flat.

If that isn’t enough, there’s the issue of Eliza, Sarah and Todd’s six-year-old daughter. Eliza begins acting out once she is told that her father is missing. Sarah takes her to a therapist, where they try to work through Eliza’s feelings towards her father and mother. One thing I did really appreciate about the book was the explanation of Eliza’s behavior. I’ve seen and read about many situations where something tragic happens and young children end up blaming a parent who is at no fault in the situation. Having no children of my own, I never understood this, and more often than not it would make me want to yell in frustration. Listfield explains this very simply and very easily: children look for someone to blame when something bad happens, and they know their parents will love them no matter what. It’s so simple that I feel foolish not having discovered it before, but there it is, an invaluable insight I know I will take with me to every book I read from now on.

The most striking thing about Waiting to Surface is how beautifully it is written. Listfield manages to capture the frustration of not knowing what happened without antagonizing the reader. The reader senses and sympathizes with the frustration, but it doesn’t carry over to frustrate the reader. She also captures grief in its most raw form and somehow makes it beautiful with her words. It seems real, as if you are reading the diary of someone from long ago. You begin to believe that Sarah is a real person, an old friend, a great-grandmother you never knew. Part of the realism stems from the fact that the book is based on true events from the author’s life. She can write so convincingly of these feelings because she has experienced them. However, that doesn’t explain how she writes about them so poetically. In some ways, I think that writing about events that had occurred in my life would be more difficult, more raw, than events I was making up. Listfield doesn’t seem to have this same handicap. She takes these raw, personal emotions and turns them into something worthy of praise. In the end, that is the book’s most redeeming characteristic.

Waiting to Surface is slow at times, and a little difficult to get into. The storyline about Sarah’s work doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the story. And most of all, it is ambiguous – the ending leaves the reader with the same uncertainty the book is filled with, so if you are a person who likes a clean-cut ending, this is not the book for you. Despite these flaws, Listfield’s book is definitely worth the time, if only for her beautiful writing style.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Swapna Krishna, 2007

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