Dear Strangers

by Meg Mullins, Vik­ing, 293 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Jen­nifer Levin

We all dif­fer in our re­sponses to death. Within a sin­gle fam­ily, each per­son ex­pe­ri­ences the same loss dif­fer­ently. Some­times, in the long af­ter­math of tragedy, the orig­i­nal loss cre­ates more loss, in the form of emo­tional dis­tance and slow-burn­ing re­sent­ment. This is the gulf be­tween those in whose na­tures it is to “move on” and those in whose na­tures “mov­ing on” feels like a cruel myth.

Grief has de­fined the life of Oliver Fin­ley, the cen­tral char­ac­ter of Meg Mullins’ sec­ond novel. Oliver loses his fa­ther sud­denly the sum­mer Oliver is 7, just days be­fore the fam­ily was to adopt a new baby boy. Oliver and his older sis­ter, Mary, care for the in­fant for a few weeks while their mother is nearly in­ca­pac­i­tated by her hus­band’s death. And then their mother changes her mind about the adop­tion and hands their new brother to a foster fam­ily. This dou­ble part­ing is the sem­i­nal event of young Oliver’s life. He can­not re­lin­quish the mem­ory of the brother they gave away. He never stops looking for the boy with the tell­tale red birth­mark on his cheek.

Twenty-one years later, Oliver makes his liv­ing cre­at­ing trib­ute videos for the be­reaved to honor their dead loved ones. His is also pur­su­ing an am­bi­tious and some­what dis­turb­ing photography project in which he poses as his fa­ther to cre­ate vin­tage-looking pic­tures from the 1970s and early ’80s. Mr. Fin­ley was rarely cap­tured on film; Oliver is tak­ing th­ese pic­tures so that, when he fi­nally meets his long-lost brother, he will be able to share with him a por­tion of the life that was sup­posed to be his. Oliver is pre­oc­cu­pied with time and ideas about con­nec­tion, themes that are wo­ven into the per­cep­tions of the book’s other char­ac­ters, all of whom are even­tu­ally al­tered in some way by Oliver’s quest.

Oliver “en­vies the mech­a­nism that ma­nip­u­lates time in or­der to re­veal the truth about the way things be­come what they are. In his mind, he refers to this phe­nom­e­non as a widen­ing.” Oliver’s mother, Betsy, wishes her son could leave the past be­hind: “She is per­plexed at his in­abil­ity to move on, grow up, get tough. Cer­tainly, she’s had to.” Later, how­ever, af­ter the Fin­leys’ world is again be­set by un­ex­pected tragedy, Mullins re­veals Betsy’s fa­mil­iar­ity with the depths of sor­row: “Here she is again. Pinned to the bed, thick­ened by the weight of her own in­sides. Her own heart, kid­neys, and liver har­den in sol­i­dar­ity as they re­mem­ber the un­re­lent­ing sirens and the flimsy de­spair of some­one else’s fail­ing body.” Oliver’s sis­ter is a flight at­ten­dant, adept at com­part­men­tal­iza­tion. Of­ten, Mary ac­tively avoids her own imagination in or­der not to find her­self “chas­ing the same phan­toms Oliver is af­ter.” Alone at night, Mary dreams in­ces­santly of the pre­flight safety speech, her hands go­ing through its mo­tions even as she sleeps.

It is Mi­randa, a pho­tog­ra­pher with ob­ses­sions of her own, who widens the per­cep­tion of Oliver for the reader as well as Oliver’s per­cep­tion of him­self. They meet while Oliver is stalk­ing his would-be brother and quickly find them­selves in a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship. Mi­randa is the book’s ground­ing force as well as its bright light, of­fer­ing hope down a road Oliver never con­sid­ered. She sees his quest to find his brother as sep­a­rate from his photography project about his fa­ther:

“[The pic­tures are] not a gift or a doc­u­men­ta­tion or any­thing else. The pho­tos you took are called some­thing else, Oliver.” “Like what?” he says, stunned. “Three let­ters. Be­gins with A, ends with T, rhymes with fart. Plain and sim­ple. Your own per­sonal vi­sion of what’s real. Or im­por­tant.”

Oliver shakes his head. He’d thought that he didn’t have to ex­plain this to her. He had be­lieved that she un­der­stood. “No, I’m not like you. I don’t have a rea­son to do any­thing un­less it’s about this.”

Her face is placid. “Yeah?” she says. “Pre­cisely.”

Mullins con­veys an ap­peal­ing di­rect­ness in her char­ac­ters, and her prose is of­ten as mu­si­cal as po­etry. Each char­ac­ter is well de­fined in his or her par­tic­u­lar wounds and re­grets. A sur­prise rev­e­la­tion is the in­ner life of Mr. Nice Guy, Oliver’s step­fa­ther. A sup­port­ing but piv­otal char­ac­ter, he is far more com­plex and sym­pa­thetic than he first ap­pears.

Dear Strangers is well paced and struc­tured. Small point-of-view prob­lems some­times dis­tract from the for­ward mo­tion, and there could be more clar­ity of tone and in­ten­tion in the di­a­logue, es­pe­cially be­tween Oliver and Mi­randa. The novel is un­apolo­get­i­cally sen­ti­men­tal in its res­o­lu­tion in that it al­lows love to re­deem nearly every­one. At the end, Oliver asks Mi­randa how the very best thing in his life can come along at ex­actly the worst time. She says that some peo­ple call this phe­nom­e­non “re­li­gion,” but she prefers to call it “re­mark­able.”

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