The opening of Nell Freudenberger’s new novel, “Lost and Wanted,” echoes a classic”Twilight Zone” episode. In “Night Call,” a phone rings and an elderly woman answers only to hear weird indecipherable sounds. The calls continue until they’re traced to a nearby cemetery, where a downed wire rests on the grave belonging to the woman’s deceased fiancee.
In “Lost and Wanted,” our narrator, Helen Clapp, looks at her ringing cellphone one morning and — thanks to caller ID — sees the name Charlie come up. The problem is that Charlie, Helen’s best friend from college, died the night before.
Out of this creepy premise, Freudenberger has crafted a gorgeous literary novel about loss and human limitations. Over the months that follow Charlie’s death, Helen grapples with grief, midlife regrets and the disruptive possibility of life after death.
Because she’s a distinguished professor of physics at MIT, Helen is well equipped — or so she believes — to argue rationally against the latter.
A clash of cultures theme is muted but still significant. As we learn in Helen’s retrospective narration, she and Charlie met in their first year at Harvard: “In our era at Harvard, there were various, distinct types: the international students; the children of immigrants; the scattering of anonymous valedictorians from all across the country, like me, the only ones from their high school. ... I would have said then that Charlie and I — an upper-middle-class black girl from Brookline and a work-study white science nerd from Pasadena — didn’t fit into any category, and that’s why we were eventually drawn to each other.”
Charlie’s death is all the more painful to Helen because the two friends had been out of touch for a while, partly because of geographical distance.
At a memorial held in Boston, where Charlie’s parents live, Helen is reunited with them, as well as with Charlie’s husband, Terrence, and her wise-child daughter, Simmi, who’s about a year older than Helen’s own 8-year-old son. Terrence and Simmi have moved in with Charlie’s parents, but the arrangement is fraught. After a few months, Helen, who’s a single mom, agrees to let the two rent the ground floor apartment in her house.
Freudenberger dramatizes, through Helen, both the dawning awareness that life doesn’t always allow for second chances and the great midlife consolation prize: a greater appreciation for those chances — and people — one has been given. In another tour-de-force passage, Helen implicitly likens Charlie to the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle of matter that “creates a field, producing profound effects on the particles around it, while remaining invisible itself; for that reason, it has sometimes been called the ‘God particle’ — a designation most physicists dislike.”
“Lost and Wanted” ends with its own ingenious version of a “big bang” that leaves Helen, our dedicated woman of science, a bit more open to the tantalizing promise of that theological designation.