Missing

Missing

Fiction | 1990

Winner of the 1991 Harold U. Ribalow Award for Best Jewish Fiction and one of the “Twenty-five Best Books of the Year” (VLS, The Literary Supplement of The Village Voice), Missing is a portrait of Rivke Vasilevsky, a widow alone in her Brooklyn apartment, where for decades she never had a moment to herself.  She spends her days at the kitchen table, nursing a glass of hot water and lemon, listening for the telephone, and reconsidering her life–from her childhood in Poland to her long marriage, from her children’s childhoods to her relationships with her grandchildren, and especially her friendship with Rachel, a photographer, who tells her grandmother, “You’re like a Communist country, always revising history.”

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A review of Missing from VLS (the Village Voice’s Literary Supplement), October 1990

Four years ago, an anthology called 20 Under 30 was published to showcase emerging fiction writers and to exploit America’s romance with youth. Although some of the authors had already emerged, the standout contribution was “Auslander” by an unknown named Michelle Herman. This haunting story invited comparisons to the work of Cynthia Ozick: both writers conjured smart, willful, and not always likeable characters; both were preoccupied with questions of identity and moral history; and most important, both seemed to revel in the power of an elegantly crafted sentence.

Herman’s brief, captivating new novel, Missing may remind readers of Ozick’s The Shawl. Holocaust survivor Rosa Lublin’s imprisonment in memories is mirrored in Herman’s Rivke, an 89-year-old widow for whom the past remains present. Despite five children and countless grandchildren who make sporadic visits, Rivke spends most of her days alone in her Brighton Beach apartment. Her one solace is her granddaughter Rachel, a thirtyish photographer. Rivke views Rachel as her true confidante; she lives for Rachel’s visits and nightly phone calls, during which the younger woman pores over Rivke’s photographs and questions her grandmother about the people in the pictures. For Rivke, the only interesting picture is one of herself in an exquisite beaded black dress. The garment has since disentegrated from age, but Rivke wants to make a necklace for Rachel out of the salvaged beads. She is startled to discover that these beads are no longer in the box where she’s been keeping them for years.
This loss becomes the occasion for Rivke’s confrontation with other losses in her life: of her beloved husband, Sol, and of her children to disappointing marriages: of happiness and hope: of time itself. Though the missing beads at first galvanize Rivke into drawing up a list of robbery suspects (all family members) and planning a course of actions, their recovery becomes less important to her as the novel progresses. Herman shows how this tough matriarch–someone who prides herself on having avoided backward glances for 60 years–slowly becomes unmoored enough by the incident to let her emotions start ranging over nine decades. The third-person internal monologue tells the story of a passionate woman who emigrated from Poland, married at 16, worked hard, raised children, and yet never quite understood where she was going or what it all meant.
Along with Rivke’s swirling but lucid memories, Herman renders the present day-to-day difficulties of her character’s present existence–the exhausting maintenance work required to keep a faltering body alive. Details about the changing of Rivke’s nitroglycerin patches, the painstaking effort required to lower and raise herself for a simple bath, her sleeplessness, and her naps permeate the novel. Clearly, Rivke’s life has become something like one of her more unpleasant dreams: “a nightmare that was not a nightmare, a nightmare without screaming.” Yet Herman wisely avoids turning Rivke into a martyr. At times she appears “harsh and unyielding–even threatening.” She is at least partially responsible for one daughter’s emotional instability. She is slow to forgive others. She thinks ill of her children’s spouses while nagging the happily single Rachel about getting hitched.
Herman has an impressive command of Rivke’s syntax (“Sol used to buy the Forward every day, and from cover to cover he would read it”) as well as the mental rearrangements the woman must perform to keep herself sane. And Herman’s a brave writer: she refuses to enliven her narrative with outside events. The reader is holed up with Rivke just as Rivke is trapped in a dusty apartment with her musings. Rivke’s acute and credible insights make this claustrophobic situation compelling. When she first realizes that her beads are lost, for example: She was not surprised to find that she did not feel alarmed. Old age, she had long since learned, stole such instincts–alarm, outrage, pure grief–and left in their place only a single muddled first response to anything unexpected: part bewilderment, part fear. The ringing phone, the realization that she had once again misplaced her keys, a catastrophe announced on the six o’clock news–any surprise at all triggered this moment of confused anxiety. It was only after this had passed that she was able to experience the ordinary reaction, whatever it was that she might have felt in her youth. Despite this “paralysis of feelings,” Rivke’s subsequent reaction reveals both her temperament and Herman’s narrative strategy. “Delayed her feelings might be, she thought bitterly, but when they came, they came with all the force that was required.”
Missing may be about gradual recognitions, but these are no less full for Rivke’s (or the reader’s) waiting. Herman’s resonant characterization doesn’t relegate her heroine’s existential woes to the problems of old age. At one point Rivke thinks, like someone seventy years her junior, “I don’t know what to do with my life” and at another, “Perhaps…it would be a blessing to be not so serious . . . .” The novel’s achievement is that her sad life is handled with such seriousness and sympathy that it is nearly impossible to remain unmoved.
                                               —Ralph Sassone