DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano (The Dial Press, 336 pp., $27)
You know almost from the beginning of Ann Napolitano’s "Dear Edward" that Edward — home-schooled brother of 15-year-old Jordan and small for his 12 years — is the sole survivor of an airplane crash on a Newark to Los Angeles flight that kills everyone else in his family, as well as a planeload of strangers. The story of his life thereafter is the main thread of this nourishing and engrossing novel.
Edward, traumatized in body and soul, moves to New Jersey to live with his aunt and uncle, winding up next door to a girl his age named Shay who immediately becomes his best friend. Shay is pretty certain that because he survived the crash, Edward has special powers. “You must be magic,” she says, likening him to Harry Potter.
Why does one person survive and not another? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Edward is branded as someone anointed, with a destiny that will justify his luck. Even in the hospital just after the crash, “So many eyes stare at Edward that the scene looks like a Picasso painting: hundreds of eyeballs, and then a smattering of limbs and hairstyles. An old woman reaches out to touch his hand as he passes. ‘God has blessed you.’”
Braided throughout "Dear Edward" are the stories of the other passengers on the plane, from the beginning of the flight until the moment of impact. For a reader to develop such emotional connection to as many people as you do in this novel, to know their hearts and their flaws, is almost impossibly satisfying. There’s the pregnant girl with no faith in her own lovability who was going to visit the boyfriend she thinks will propose to her. There's also the older hippie, certain she is embarked on only one of her many lives, who is leaving her husband; the elderly billionaire with a terrible illness; the never-satisfied business tycoon; the beautiful flight attendant; the wounded soldier heading home to his grandmother. Napolitano’s humanity and love of her characters renders each of these people whole and complex.
Edward’s story focuses as he slowly heals and his sense of loss tightens around the absence of Jordan, the person who knew him best in the world, the person he counted on. It turns out that Jordan had his own secrets, and when Edward is ready, he learns about them. “Edward used to miss Jordan only for himself. It had been his terrible loss. Now he also mourns what his brother has lost.”
Brooklyn-based Napolitano, author of two previous novels and an editor at the famed One Story magazine, explores the deepest question there is, the one that Job himself struggled to understand — "Why me, Lord? — and provides a solid and satisfying answer. As a psychic explains late in the book, “There was no reason for what happened to you, Eddie. You could have died; you just didn’t. It was dumb luck. Nobody chose you for anything. Which means, truly, that you can do anything.”
"Dear Edward" is such an optimistic diversion that you might not even notice how important and finely made it is. Never soppy, the novel provides pitch-perfect understanding of human vulnerabilities. When you’re reading, you’re deep in the pleasure of good storytelling, but when you’re done, you know that you’ve experienced a brush with literary virtuosity.