When Natalia Kisch packs her suitcase and leaves her family in mid-1970’s Pennsylvania for a holiday in Italy with her boss, she has not taken the time to consider the consequences of her actions. Each family member is left in the wake of Natalia’s impulsive desertion: husband, Frank, and daughters Eve, seventeen, and Sissy, nine.
Each responds differently, albeit predictably, with frustration, rage and nagging questions of self-worth. How could Natalia turn her back on her family? In her innocence, Sissy is perhaps most profoundly affected, missing her mother’s imaginative tales of witches and strangers, of children snatched from their beds or rescued in the nick of time from danger. Sissy withdraws into a fantasy world, one peopled by more manageable situations, characters she can control and keep from harm.
But when a neighborhood playmate, ten-year-old Vicki, disappears from a nearby park two weeks later, Sissy’s confusion deepens, her security fractured. Should she have been friendlier to Vicki, whom Sissy no longer considers a friend? It is this terrifying terrain - the unexpected - that Novack addresses in an emotionally powerful novel that exposes the dark heart of human frailties. Destruction is afoot, if below the radar, Natalia’s bruised family on autopilot, flying too low to the ground.
Propelled, this novel rushes to its conclusion, an out-of-control collision of I-didn’t-mean-to and you-don’t understand, the suspect shapes of lies and betrayal. The author’s use of language is exceptional, nuanced, often poetic (“the fluttery dance of still sheets, flapping like swan wings”) in a disturbing tale of family dynamics, a marriage in crisis, and no one able to protect the children, further aggravated by Vicki’s disappearance.
The Kisches are eviscerated by Natalia’s desertion. While the neighborhood gossips offer sympathy to Vicki’s antisocial alcoholic mother, they tread lightly around Natalia’s family, judging yet cautious with confrontations. Vicki’s distraught mother is a symbol of the world’s intrusion on small-town life, the dangers that lurk in the wider world. But behind the placid facade of the Kisch household, there is quieter kind of violence, one measured in silence and resentment, of the failure of parent to child.
The painful Christmas holidays finally pass, the freezing weather thawed with the seasons, yielding spring and the oppressive heat of summer. Then Frank hides behind his job or beneath his restored Chevy, tinkering, while Eve pursues a hopeless relationship with an unsuitable man. Sissy makes up stories, prowls the park where the children have been forbidden to play, creating a parallel universe where Vicki is safe and happy, not dead.
Crises, of a mother’s making, or a daughter’s desperate call for attention, do leave scars, especially if the wounds are unattended. Even when/if Natalia returns, Eve has lost her way, awash in confusion and rage. One selfish action ripples across the years, the damage impossible to assess in a moment of unhappiness, the immutable realities of secrets and private pain. Could this family’s fate have been otherwise? Possibly, but each person responds as they are able. Even a chastened Natalia submits to fate and forgiveness in time: “I cried all my tears when you weren’t watching. Not even God knows everything.”