To kick off what might be called Michelle Herman week here at Collected Miscellany (as regular readers know, I have an interview to finish transcribing and reviews of her other books planned) I thought it would be appropriate to start off with her first novel.
Missing tells the story of Rivke Vasilevsky an eighty-nine-year-old Jewish widow who finds herself alone in her New York (Brighton Beach)apartment to ponder the ravages of time. Her husband’s death creates a void and her children (and grandchildren) are caught up in their own lives and visit less and less. Rivke, who in the not too distant past never had a moment to her self, begins to reflect on what has brought her to this point when a set of beads turns up missing.
This is the title’s literal reference but as the story unwinds much more is missing than mere beads. Rivke wrestles with the complex and often strained relationships that have made up her life: her parents, her husband, her children, and even her grandchildren (in fact, the person she feels closest to is her granddaughter). She also wrestles with the slippery nature of memory and communication. Through the fog of emotion and time she is trying to piece together the truth about her life; not so much the mere circumstances of the past but the emotional and relational truth.
What is amazing about Missing is the ability of Herman to take us inside this world. It is a feat of creative imagination to paint such a compelling picture of the life of the elderly. But Herman is not simply a realistic reporter of what life might be like for those whom life seems to have passed by. No, just as the real focus of Rivke’s struggles are emotional, Herman’s skill comes in letting us look inside the psychological rather than just the physical.
Sure, Herman touches on how age can effect the physical: the inability to sleep in a bed alone after a lifetime of sharing with a spouse; the sheer exertion required to take a bath; the inability to do the chores one used to complete on a daily basis and that are required to keep even a small apartment clean and well organized; the difficulty of keeping straight the complicated number and nature of the many medicines prescribed; not to mention the aches and pains that build up when one is living in their ninth decade.
Herman captures Rivke’s surroundings well – in the kitchen with a cup of hot water and lemon; lying awake on the couch at night only to nap sitting up during the day; having the TV on just for the company – but the real skill lies in getting inside her head and heart. Herman creates a nuanced and realistic portrayal by avoiding cliches and stereotypes. Rivke is neither the perfect doting grandmother nor is she the old shrew. She has aspects of both, but her emotional make-up is more complex and thus more real. Capable of kindness and openness, seen mostly in her relationship with her favorite grand-daughter, and yet capable of selfishness and a stubborn refusal to forgive.
As Rivke looks back on her life and her relationships with her family Herman peels back the layers of memory and emotion. Despite the lack of action or complex plot, Herman creates suspense and tension as the reader seeks to understand what brought Rivke to her present circumstances. The missing beads are soon forgotten but there remains the mystery of layers of family secrets, emotional wounds, and dysfunction. The reader wants to know how Rivke comes to terms not only with her life as it is, but who she is and what it means.
Missing is a poignant gem of a book. In the course of telling the story of an elderly women who finds herself truly along for the first time in her life, Herman touches on complex issues like self-deceit, the slipperiness of memory, and the fragile nature of relationships. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys exploring this inner world or who just enjoys tight and elegant language.