by Meg Mullins, Viking, 293 pages
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.”