It is almost impossible for any parent to consider a tiny outstretched hand, a tousled head or beguiling smile, lost in an instant, swept into a mind-numbing abyss.
And it becomes even more unbearable if the parent is partly to blame.
In THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN, her debut novel, Jacquelyn Mitchard takes readers on this sad, fist-shaking journey.
Beth Cappadora, a photographer in suburban Wisconsin, loses her three-year-old, Ben, during a high school reunion in Chicago after leaving him with his brother Vincent, who is seven. Ben simply vanishes from a lobby crowded with Beth's former classmates.
At this point Mitchard, who is a wonderful storyteller, steps back and, instead of dousing the reader with sap, hits them with almost textbook precision.
Beth and her husband, Pat, are neither heroes nor rogues. Their reactions to this torment are ferocious in their simplicity. Beth never quite becomes a sympathetic character, more often inviting a slap than a hug from the reader. She quickly descends into a black depression, her sanity dangling languidly while Vincent grows into a troubled youth and Kerry, a baby when Ben is lost, grows up oblivious. Beth steps back from the edge, as much for the sake of narrative as herself, but continues to pinwheel, seeking balance.
Pat is elusive. He loses himself in his work, and moves the family to Chicago, setting them up for an almost impossible plot twist that at first glance would seem to settle their anguish but only leads to more.
Mitchard runs some interesting subplots through the book. Like Beth's still-simmering relationship with her high school beau. Or detective Candy Bliss, a lesbian, who yearns to be a mother.
Mitchard is an easy read. Her years as a syndicated columnist make her dialogue sound familiar and the narrative flow.
But it's hard to like the characters in Mitchard's well-crafted story, or even feel sorry for people who are so self-absorbed. I suspect that's because they take us where no one wants to go. As Mitchard writes, "If she dared embrace what she really felt about Ben's loss -- pulled apart the skeins of stupidity and lack and the truth that everything that matters in life is decided irrevocably in seconds --- Beth knew something would happen to her. And it was that, the beyond-grief, the sealing-up of a mind still expected to produce order and plans, which she dreaded."
THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN does indeed take her there, and, in the end, makes that dread ours.
The Deep End of the Ocean