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 the modern miracle of 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 (officially, from complications of lupus), 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. But even after learning that Charlie’s cellphone went missing immediately after her death and that the postmortem calls and texts she’s still receiving are probably from a cruel prankster, Helen is unnerved. Whoever is contacting her is privy to personal information only Charlie would know.
In her other books — the superb 2003 short story collection, “Lucky Girls,” and the richly imagined novels that followed, “The Dissident” and “The Newlyweds” — Freudenberger concerned herself with the clash of cultures: What would happen, for instance, if a performance artist from China or a bride from Bangladesh transplanted to Los Angeles or Rochester, N.Y.?
Here, the clash of cultures theme is more 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.” But these boxes, Helen continues, “were nothing more than comforting fictions, like Bohr’s atomic model, which is so pretty and so sensible — its particles orbiting the nucleus like a miniature sun and planets — that it’s still the definitive representation. This is in spite of its incompatibility with everything we now know about the very tiniest pieces into which the world can be broken.”
That passage is a miniature model of Freudenberger’s dazzling writing style in “Lost and Wanted”: Helen’s thoughts will often meander from a wry social observation to a digression on physics (generally accessible to the layperson) to a heart-rending epiphany. 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 service 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. That this plot twist doesn’t feel contrived or melt into a gooey resolution further demonstrates Freudenberger’s penetrating imagination.
Freudenberger was hailed as a literary wunderkind when she published her first story in the New Yorker at the age of 26. Now 43, she 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 the Helen, our dedicated woman of science, a bit more open to the tantalizing promise of that theological designation.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program, “Fresh Air.”