In her inner life, there were two things she had rules about. One was If Only. If Only I had walked with him that morning. If Only he'd left a minute earlier, or later. If Only I'd called him back for his jacket. ... She could bear to imagine almost any of the possible fates that Alex had met. She could not bear It Might Not Have Happened.
The other thing was imagining how he would come back, if ever. At first she had thought the phone would ring, one of the tens of thousands of calls, but each one maybe the one. She would pick up the phone and there would be his voice. 'Hello...Mommy?' Perhaps she still believed that, for a millisecond, each time the phone rang, even now. Perhaps she would for the rest of her life. ... But the phone rang so often, and dreams replayed too many times lose their power to move. ...
But there were still ways it would happen. She allowed herself to develop one one at a time and she allowed herself to think of it only in the hour before sleep, when she turned out the light. For instance: someone would see an an old picture in an article at the hairdresser's and recognize the little 'grandchild' of the couple down the block. Or: someone from the neighborhood would pass a schoolyard one day and see a little boy playing alone. They would see the face on the poster, although his hair would be dyed and his missing tooth grown in, and they would recognize him anyway, because no one, no one,could mistake that brilliant smile. They would call the police or they would call her -- or they would simply drive up Fremont Street to her door one day and ring the bell. ...
It might be that I read it so very long ago, or that I wasn't a Bostonian then, or that the movie (which I remember better) was set in New York, but I didn't realize until recently that this novel is set in Boston. Not only in Boston, but just a few streets away from where I live. Of course, me being me, that made me long to read it again, with the extra treat of finding the Persephone edition.
The plot that umderpins the story is simple: Alex Selky, a bright, happy, earnestly responsible almost-seven-year-old, has begged his mother Susan, a professor of literature at Harvard, to let him walk to school by himself. Every morning, she watches him walk to the corner, turn and wave, and turn out of sight for the last two blocks -- until one day in May, when he doesn't come home after school. Lieutenant Al Minetti, a father of seven, leads the police investigation that follows, there's intense media attention, and friends and neighbors join the hunt and paper all of Boston with posters of the missing child. In the crisis, Susan is also reunited with her unfaithful husband Graham, who can't be found immediately when Alex disappears because he is cheating on his new girlfriend.
But for most of the novel, the focus is on 'still,' because despite Minetti's concern, and Susan's perseverance, Alex has disappeared without a trace (that was the movie's title, now that I remember), and the novel turns its attention to what happens in the months that follow. There are a few false leads, and an unexpected twist, but mostly, there is quiet day-to-day despair that makes the novel a little hard to bear but perfectly captures what would happen: some friends drop away, others emerge, the police investigation quiets down, and Susan and Graham waver between hope and knowing that Alex is most likely lost to them.
Still Missing is definitely a novel of its day, but it is also beautifully written, and even though I remembered all along how it would end, I still found it very moving to reach that moment.
Still Missing, by Beth Gutcheon
Persephone Books, 2010 (originally published in 1981)
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum