By: Michelle Richmond
Reviewed by: Anita Garner
Bantam Discovery, 2007
The dilemma with Michelle Richmond’s newest novel is this: the plot is so compelling you can’t read fast enough, but the writing is so crisp and exact you want to savor every word. Richmond’s 2000 short story collection, remember—The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress—won the Associated Writing Programs Award and has continued to be used in college literary and writing courses. This second novel surpasses her debut novel Dream of the Blue Room.
The basic plot taps into the modern day myth/horror story that at one time or another stops cold the hearts of all parents. What if you are out with your child on an ordinary day and almost right before your eyes the child disappears? This is exactly what happens to Abby Mason, a Southern transplant to San Francisco, except six-year-old Emma is not quite Abby’s child, not yet. Emma’s natural birth mother deserted the child to the father, Jake. And Abby and Jake have fallen in love and set a date for marriage. Emma is the unanticipated joy Abby has found in the relationship, the joy of motherhood that tantalizes Abby with the promise of the warmth of family. Then one morning when Abby and Emma are walking on a familiar but foggy beach, Emma runs ahead, just out of sight, and all their lives change forever.
Along the journey of the novel, there are insights into, of course, that circus of contemporary society: how parents of missing children are forced to become media entertainment, their stories of loss and heartache just so much fodder for TV ratings and popular opinion polls. Richmond explores the complex fabric of mixed families and individual needs. Yet there are also researched, forthright insights into what we know (and don’t know) about memory. And the novel presents a travelogue of the surfing life, even taking the reader to Costa Rica at one point as Abby pursues a lead, the scenes describing the vagabond surfing/sports culture meshing perfectly with the narrator’s psyche. Similarly, if it’s been a while since you’ve visited San Francisco, Richmond’s descriptions will have you longing to pack your bags and re-connect with that magical West Coast mixture of bay and city, cool sunshine and fog.