THE SPECIAL POWER OF RESTORING LOST THINGS. By Courtney Elizabeth Mauk. Little A. 202 pages. $24.95
So many stories are set in New York City, and so many of those stories are love letters to the city. In New Yorker Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s third novel, “The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things,” the city is almost as out of focus as the skyline on the cover. But this is not to say this story could be set anywhere. The backdrop of America’s most famous city is the best place for things and people to get lost.
What are the lost things of the title? The most obvious is Jennifer, who is a constant presence in the narrative despite the novel revolving around the impact of her body being found a year after she went missing. Mauk weaves information about this absent central character through the memories and thoughts of the family left behind.
Carol, her mother, has lost her motivation to engage with either her family or the world but tries to connect with her daughter by dressing in her clothes and going out at night to find her abductor. Drew, her father, has lost his facade of stubborn, stoic patriarch and scribbles notes to his daughter in a notebook he carries in his pocket. And Ben, her 15-year-old younger brother, has lost his childhood and his innocence by looking for his sister in the friends with which she surrounded herself.
This is a family that has become “strangers bound together,” to borrow Drew’s definition, and it will take more than one of the saints on Jennifer’s candles to bring them back from the edge.
Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view. Even if it would fit the novel’s premise if this choice was disorienting, each of the characters is distinct and compelling; the reader doesn’t spend a third of the book thinking “I wish I could skip this Ben chapter.” While we don’t learn too much about the characters apart from who they are now, we learn enough to get a sense of who they used to be and what they’ve lost along with losing Jennifer.
The chapters vary in length — some are only a page long — but as the story builds, the chapters become shorter and shorter, urging the reader along until the characters converge at the climax of the novel. At that point, this is a book hard to put down. And Mauk uses perfectly chosen words to tie the three narratives together. One chapter ends with a character drinking bubbly Champagne, and the next chapter opens with a description of the bubbly way a character feels while on MDMA, the drug ecstasy.
It's easy to get lost in Mauk’s evocative prose. The writing is lyrical and beautiful without being overwritten, and this is due to Mauk’s evocative word choice. A digital clock “burns” the time. A mound of whipped cream on a stack of pancakes “trembles.” These subtle choices emphasize the feeling of a family teetering on the brink.
By the end of the novel, we aren’t sure if the questions raised at the beginning have been answered definitively, but that ambiguity seems more true to life than had Mauk tied all the narrative threads together in a neat little bow. It’s an imperfect ending, but one that is unexpected, mournful and hopeful. It ends at the beginning of another story. But this one is over, and the reader is left to wonder if this family can find their way back to each other again.