‘Lost and wanted’ is a modern ghost story

How are we supposed to feel when we learn of the death of a friend who had slowly drifted out of our day-to-day life? As Nell Freudenberger shows in her latest novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), it’s complicated. Helen Clapp and Charlotte “Charlie” Boyce were as close as it is possible for two people to be when they were students at Harvard despite being as different as chalk and cheese. Helen is a studious science nerd from a white working-class family; Charlie’s academic interests lay in French literature, and she is supermodel-level gorgeous, the only child in an affluent African-American family. After college, they drifted apart: Helen stayed in academia, eventually landing at MIT as a professor of physics; Charlie moved to L.A. to work as a television producer, where she married a surfer dude and had a daughter. Helen remained single but had a son via sperm donor.

Busy with their respective careers on opposite coasts, Helen and Charlie haven’t spoken for some time when Helen unexpectedly gets a cryptic text message from Charlie. Before she has a chance to follow up on this unexpected communication, Charlie’s husband calls to tell her that Charlie has died — before the text message was sent. What’s going on here?

That question seems as though it will be the heart of a modern-day ghost story, but in the end the answer is less important than what Helen learns about herself, about friendship, and about grief. As she struggles to process her emotions and remembers the high and low points of her and Charlie’s friendship, Helen expresses herself using the language she is most comfortable with: physics. I really struggled with these bits, as I have the most rudimentary of science knowledge. I still felt able to enjoy the story but I’m sure someone who could relate to the scientific concepts would feel a much deeper connection.

Once I gave myself permission to stop trying to make the scientific connections, I came to realize that Helen’s frequent retreats into scientific analogy were a way to distance herself from the intensity of her feelings. With that insight, I found myself absorbed in Helen’s journey of re-discovery. The ways in which she interacts with the people around her who also knew Charlie felt completely organic, and her need to re-interpret her memories of Charlie through the lens of new information learned after her death was compelling. As Helen muses at Charlie’s memorial service, “… love was particular even though it was directed at the same person, that we hadn’t lost just one Charlie but as many as the number of people who were seated here today.”

Readers who expect a modern-day ghost story based on the initial setup may be disappointed, but Freudenberger’s meditation on connection and loss should resonate even with those of us without a firm grasp of quantum mechanics.

2 thoughts on “Exploring the science of grief

  1. ‪I wanted more when the book was done. It tied up the Charlie thing but I feel like there was some story left to ‬tell about Helen and her son.

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    1. I think we need a sequel in which Helen learns that Jack has dozens of half-siblings conceived by the same sperm donor. Or maybe I’ve been reading too many NYT horror stories.

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