At first glance, The Missing is a book that is basically screaming my name. It’s a mystery, it’s historical, and it’s set in the South. So why didn’t I love it?

Well, for one, despite its recent Edgar nomination, The Missing is less a mystery novel and more a meditation on the nature of loss and the gaping holes that people leave in our lives when they suddenly disappear. It’s the story of Sam Simoneaux, a New Orleans musician (and WWI veteran) who gets tangled up in the family and fate of a missing child, Lily Weller. The novel follows his journey through the South of the 1920s as he tries to find Lily. Bookending the main action, and woven through it at times, are Sam’s attempts to deal with a tragic past–a murdered family, a son lost to illness, memories of war–and forge a future.

These A and B plots are supposed to flow together seamlessly, but I’m not sure that they do. The first part, dealing with Sam’s short time in France, is delicately handled and sets up the rest of the plot well. But Sam’s attempts to deal with his family’s death never truly seem to fit in properly, and the final chapters of the book, which deal exclusively with him tracking down the murderers, feel tacked on to the main action. Sam himself is ambivalent toward the project until the very end, and it actually seems more like he’s goaded into going after them after the constant harping of a coworker, and less like he’s truly invested in the result. This ambivalence carries through to the reader; I never found myself connecting to Sam’s quest.

This is hardly a fast-paced book, and I spent the first half frustrated and wanting things to pick up. I even considered giving up. Ultimately, though, I’m glad I stuck with it. The second half of the book was better than the first; although I thought the final part didn’t hang with the main storyline very well, I actually liked it quite a lot. Although Gautreaux is a bit ham-handed with the theme of those who go “missing”–many of the conversations Sam has with other characters revolve around loss–he also provides moving portraits of ordinary people grappling with grief. My favorite passage comes from Sam’s Uncle Claude, who, after many years, is finally telling Sam the full story of his parents’ deaths:

“I looked down on him and thought about all the music wouldn’t never be heard. And that wasn’t all, he could shingle a roof tight as a boat’s bottom. His fields were plowed straight like lines on a tablet. I thought about that, too. All that was killed. Ah, Sammy, when a man kills somebody, the most important thing he takes away is all the things that person can do in a lifetime.

Indeed, when Sam finally tracks down the killers, he’s motivated less by what he lost than what he never had the opportunity to know. Only six months old when his family died, Sam has no memories of them, and for many years doesn’t really understand the full weight of what is gone, what is missing. What he realizes is that he was robbed not of the past, of what came before, but of the future. He is missing all of the memories that should have been made. It’s a fine distinction, but one that Gautreaux makes well.

I think part of my dissatisfaction with The Missing is that I expected all the wrong things from it. In retrospect, I like it quite a bit more now than I did when I was halfway through. But I’m not sure I like it enough to search out more of Gautreaux’s work, and I’m not at all sure I like it enough to allot it precious shelf space; it’s entirely possible it won’t survive the next great book purge. Overall, a solid B effort.

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