LOST AND WANTED, by Nell Freudenberger. Alfred A. Knopf, 315 pp., $26.95.
What happens to our souls when we die? Does our consciousness leave a trace on earth?
These questions have long been the domain of philosophers and religious scholars, but author Nell Freudenberger draws parallels between questions of ontology and physical science in her third novel, “Lost and Wanted.” Helen Clapp, a professor and author, spends her professional life pushing the boundaries of human knowledge about physics. She confesses that she likes “doing things the hard way” — and takes on single parenthood not long after publication of an important paper in theoretical physics with a former lover, Neel Jonal.
Soon after Helen’s best friend and former college roommate, Charlotte “Charlie” Boyce, dies of lupus, Charlie’s husband and daughter come to Boston to live with her parents. Helen’s 7-year-old son, Jack, becomes close to Simmi, Charlie’s daughter. Simmi and Jack look for a way to contact Charlie, and have lots of questions about death. At the same time, Helen begins receiving text messages from Charlie’s lost phone. Through Helen’s quest to explain Charlie’s ghost texts, Freudenberger explores the nature of friendship and delves into the existential questions that plague physicists and laypeople alike.
The history of Charlie and Helen’s friendship sheds light on how the texts affect Helen. Even though they grew apart after college — when Charlie moved to L.A. to become a screenwriter — their connection was unique. As a result, the text messages force Helen to contend with her grief and guilt simultaneously. “I thought about what was different from…other friendships," Helen says. "It was a level of intimacy that I’d never reached with another woman, not back then or once we became adults. I think that with most of our friends we choose how much of ourselves to reveal, and with a very select few it feels as if there is no choice.”
When “Charlie” continues to text questions about science and existence from beyond the grave, Helen must confront her complicated feelings about not staying in touch when Charlie was alive. Meanwhile, Neel returns to Boston, announcing his engagement to another woman. Nostalgia for an earlier time in her life — with both Charlie and Neel — draws Helen deeper into an obsession with the mystery texts.
“Lost and Wanted” sometimes bogs down under the weight of its scientific explanations, but it is most prescient when connecting scientific and metaphysical faith in things that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Neel says, “I still feel strongly that there’s something we’re talking about when we say ‘human consciousness’ that extends beyond the brain and the nervous system.” Ever a realist, Helen refuses to believe in ghosts, but she is disturbed by the specificity of the texts. She quotes Einstein on losing a companion: “So he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” If a scientist of Einstein’s caliber acknowledged that not all mysteries can be explained, could Charlie’s soul exist in some other realm?
“Lost and Wanted” explores the complicated nature of friendship, especially the relationships that we form in youth, as we are trying to discover ourselves. These impact us long after we stop seeing our friends daily. Helen ultimately discovers the source of the text messages, but also that she must let Charlie go and imagine life without her. It is only when she embraces a new kind of faith in the unseen that she is able to move on.