I wish I could figure out who the intended audience for Nell Freudenberger’s very bad novel “Lost and Wanted” is supposed to be, but am unable to do so. Perhaps it’s some kind of millennial fairy tale, quasi-feminist academic parable or diversity handbook or some such. Freudenberger has written several first rate novels to date, but “Lost and Wanted” is little more than a politically correct diatribe of sorts, in which a variety of minorities are all wildly successful in fascinating careers–all in their early thirties, and all graduates of Harvard. (The elitism of same runs like a thread through this novel).
The alleged friendship (and more than occasional competition) between two high achieving women is at the core of the novel, one white and one African-American. They roomed together at Harvard; the white woman is from a small town, and is a self-proclaimed math genius and ends up, by the age of 33, teaching physics at MIT and Harvard. (That women are still underrepresented in the sciences in America is one of the correctives of this novel). Her friend is from what we’re told is a very old Philadelphia family, African-American–one has one’s doubts, there, as Philadelphia’s long been one of the snootiest, whitest , socially exclusive cities in America, known for the extreme WASP snobbery of its “Main Line”). Although the African-American woman originally had intended to study, through to a Ph.D. in French literature, she’s thrown off track because her professor/advisor, a white man, makes passes at her and ruins this possible academic career choice (you can see early in this novel that it’s a near caricature of every feminist/Post #Me Too cliche around right now). And, of course, our African-American woman marries “down”, as they say, a man well “beneath her station”–a black man from the streets–of whom her parents, solidly upper middle class, disapprove. Instead of pursuing her Ph.D. in French literature, she ends up going into Hollywood/the movies/TV, where we readers hear about all the unfairness of the white male power structure there (under which she appears to flourish, but meditates on whether she is or isn’t an “affirmative action” hire). But the African-American woman, married and with one child, is stricken with lupus and kills herself as she cannot tolerate the physical pain caused by this disease. She has left behind, on her cell phone, a letter to her parents about said death, and the phone is stolen upon her demise. (Any remotely astute reader will quickly figure out who stole this phone, so it’s a lousy plot device at best).
Meanwhile, our physicist flourishes as teacher/researcher; I noted that her other best friends from Harvard include a Rhodes-scholar winning man from Africa and an Asian-American woman now playing in The Boston Symphony: my, no suffering for these Harvard grads; the novel may be the best public relations for Harvard written in fiction recently, and is a virtual paean to political correctness and “diversity”. I was quite interested personally in the African man who took the Rhodes prize, as, back in l968 I was myself nominated for a Rhodes scholarship and withdrew my candidacy after I discovered how abysmally racist Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia, was in real life). So no moral scruples here for Freudenberger’s wildly ambitious but morally ambiguous characters. The reader, incidentally, will learn just a tad about physics, mostly all taken from recent discoveries in that field, including the recent finding of the gravitational waves Einstein predicted in 1915, but you needn’t worry about not understanding the physics: it’s all been in the general news.
The small daughter, now motherless, of the African-American woman and the son of the physicist (born, of course, via an in vitro pregnancy from a well chosen but anonymous sperm donor: no unnecessary sex or human interaction emotionally for our physicist, who claims that any physical/sexual needs she has are fulfilled by holding her child; she does have a love affair with—surprise! An Indian physicist!) become friends for a year, as all the characters live in Boston for awhile; evidence of the late Hollywood writer pop up from time to time (ghosts?computer glitches?): that’s the undertheme of the novel: is it possible that there are spirits around and about that cannot be understood by our rational physicist and friends? Has the mother returned in spirit via her daughter and/or to comfort same? Has the world of reason, so well represented by the towering Harvard, possibly, uh, missed something that’s intangible? The great (well….) denouement of this conflict between reason and spirit will occur at a physics lab
at Harvard, where inexplicable things happen, leaving our physicist to wonder if there are other forces around/about (of course, physics itself has been dealing in the new/the impossible, the improbable, and the like for decades, so these two ideas shouldn’t be incompatible).
You’ve got it: just about every cultural cliche of the moment on The Left/Progressive side of culture is manifest in this novel, which is like a painting (by number?) without any shadows at all. Virtually no one has a bad day; one motherless child and one fatherless child are amazingly well adjusted under the circumstances, and our physicist only once has a bad day with her son.
There’s absolutely no reality in any of this seeming perfection of (allegedly formerly minority) human lives, and the characters are uniformly one-dimensional. The minor subtheme of the novel, the relationship between reason and the unknowable, seems rather adolescent and also one-dimensional. It’s a shame that Nell Freudenberger felt some need to write a relentlessly p.c. novel with such thin, stock characters when she’s so clearly capable of more than this inadvertently nearly comic novel.