My review of Find Me by Laura van den Berg appeared today in the Boston Globe.
Last year, when I was trying to psych myself up to write some fiction, I picked up a few lit mags from the Harvard Book Store. I was looking for inspiration–by which I mean I was hoping to find stories that were kind of lame and underwhelming, to make writing and getting a short story published seem like an attainable goal.
Unfortunately, the very first story I read was Laura van den Berg’s “Antarctica,” from Glimmer Train #88. (The story also appears in her collection The Isle of Youth.) It was way too good; so when I saw that she had a novel coming out this winter, I jumped at the chance to review it.
Find Me is a little bit of a bait-and-switch. Promoted as a story about a devastating pandemic, it is, in fact, a very subtle exploration of a troubled woman’s inner turmoil. Van den Berg spends the first third of the book setting up a rather scary and ominous scenario in a remote quarantine hospital, with hints of menace that echo the unease and mystery that made “Antarctica” so engaging. But despite what seems like a long buildup toward a conflict between the stir-crazy patients and the controlling staff, this story line peters out, and the protagonist, Joy Jones, slips away to take up the book’s real main thread: the search for her long lost biological mother.
I’ll admit, this development bummed me out. I’d gotten really invested in the detailed world of the hospital van den Berg had created, and to see it dismissed so quickly seemed like a real shame. And that disappointment made it hard for me to really latch on to Joy’s cross-country travels, or her time spent in the kooky “Mansion.” But after a few days away from the book, I began to appreciate the whole of the story, and the connections between the disparate sections started to become more apparent.
Basically, once I got over that Find Me wasn’t what I thought it should be, I was able to appreciate it for what it actually was.