“The Lost Son” ($28.95 hardcover, Regal House) is the debut novel by Stephanie Vanderslice, director of the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.
At least that’s what the press reports say; I’m more inclined to believe that this is just the first novel Vanderslice has published, and she probably has other manuscripts tucked away in drawers or on hard drives, in various stages of incompleteness. I hazard that guess because “The Lost Son” is nothing like a first novel; it’s confident and poised, like a mid-career work from an established author.
Most early novels, good and bad, are like memoirs or pastiches, more interested in presenting as remarkable than serving the reader. Most writers – young and old, successful and floundering – are at least partially driven by their ego. A feeling I often hear expressed is that no one really likes to write, they just like having written. While I disagree with that – some people enjoy writing what they don’t expect to publish, and pseudonymous examples abound – most writers do want to be seen.
And that impulse often interferes with the direct connection to the reader necessary for successful storytelling. Any time something in a novel causes the reader to question the author’s background or personal history, there is a risk that the reader will be kicked out of the fictional universe. The perils of metafiction may not be insurmountable, but they are very real. And experience teaches that first novels are more prone to succumb to these problems than other endeavors, perhaps because his first novel might also be his last.
If that sounds like I’m fainting praising “The Lost Son” for not being a disaster, that’s not what I mean. It’s just that it’s so rare to find a first novel that can count its structure among its main values that I want to write about it before discussing the other virtues.
“The Lost Son” is a book that was composed by someone who knows how to construct a book, an author who disappears so cleanly from his created universe that his characters could debate his existence. It feels well-researched and believable, both in its depictions of human emotional time and major historical events.
And it’s delivered in a restrained but powerful prose style in which every word seems weighed and sorted and considered for cadence, tone and variety. It reads easily, so you might think it was easily accomplished. This was not the case. Or at least I hope it wasn’t.
As the title suggests, it’s the story of a mother trying to find her son.
Julia never knew her own mother, who died giving birth to her. Her father, a celebrity chef, quit his job at a luxury hotel to join the wealthy Kruse house in Stuttgart, Germany, so he could have time to spend with his two young daughters. The Kruses accept them as family, and Julia – a bright and voracious reader – and her sister, Lena, are tutored alongside the Kruse children.
Julia’s academic prowess causes tension between her and Lena and earns her the affection of Robert, the scion of the Kruse fortune. After Julia’s father dies, Robert persuades his family to allow Julia to move into the family home until she turns 18, when he proposes to marry her.
Although the Krus were not thrilled with the arrangement, they arranged for the young couple to emigrate to New York in 1922. The Krus earned their money as jewelers; once in America, Robert will apprentice to a jeweler on Park Avenue to learn the family trade, with the ultimate goal of opening a branch of the family business there.
After five years in New York, Julia and Robert seem to be navigating life quietly. they have a healthy and happy son named Johannes. But Julia’s second pregnancy is difficult, and after giving birth to Nicholas, she is confined to a wheelchair and assisted by a young nurse named Hélène.
As Julia regains her strength, the unforgivable happens – Robert and Helena kidnap Nicholas and return to Germany, leaving Julia to raise Johannes on her own, in desperate circumstances.
Blocked by the Krus and her sister, Julia does not have the means to truly seek out her son. She works in a bakery, she raises Johannes.
And in 1945, as Johannes was growing up and fighting the Germans in the army, she met Paul, an Irish immigrant working as a driver for a powerful and politically connected man.
Perhaps there’s a certain inevitability to the plot that makes it sound a bit like one of Irwin Shaw’s novels before he became obsessed with the inevitability of death – it has a part of the epic scope of “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and one could imagine an enterprising producer recognizing its potential as the basis for intellectual property for a miniseries.
But it’s not one of those novels that exists to demonstrate cinematic proof-of-concept – there’s a strength and poise to Vanderslice’s clean prose that suggests careful attention to refinement and fit and feel. patient application of an intelligent and mature technique.
Not a first rodeo, I guess.
E-mail: [email protected]