Mysteries and Disasters

This Week’s Hot Reads: July 8, 2013

From the unsolved murders of five women whose remains were found on Long Island to a new Louis Begley novella.

Lost GirlsBy Robert KolkerWho killed the five women found dead in Long Island?

On the morning of May 1, 2010, 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert went missing in the secluded community of Oak Beach, Long Island. She had arrived hours before when someone responded to a posting she’d made on Craigslist offering sex. Now it was time to go home. But as her driver watched, a dazed and apparently terrified Shannan took off running from the john’s house and away from her ride. It would be more than a year and a half before Shannan’s remains were found in the marsh not far from where she vanished. By then, police had also found the bodies of four other 20-something women: Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Costello, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, and Megan Waterman. Each of the women had gone missing while working as a Craigslist prostitute, and each was found buried in a burlap sack on a small stretch of Gilgo Beach three miles away from Oak Beach. The pattern in their deaths suggested that a serial killer was at large.

Beyond these facts, details about the victims’ deaths are limited. Readers expecting an SVU-style true-crime story will be disappointed by Lost Girls. But through detailed profiles of the victims themselves, New York magazine reporter Robert Kolker has written a more provocative book—a book that is as much about class and economic pressures as it is about sex work and murder. Maureen, Melissa, Shannan, Megan, and Amber all came from struggling middle- to lower-middle-class families in cities with few employment opportunities. Before turning to prostitution, they tried working at Applebee’s, doing secretarial work, selling pizzas, and telemarketing. None of these jobs paid the way selling sex did, though. The ease and anonymity of finding clients through Craigslist made prostitution even more appealing. Part of the tragedy of their stories is the extent to which it appeared to be their best option.

Memories of a MarriageBy Louis BegleyChronicles of a fallen heiress’s failed marriage.

Why do marriages fail? When Philip, the aging protagonist of Louis Begley’s new novella, runs into Lucy de Bourgh at the New York Ballet, he is surprised by the gruff, bitter woman she has become. The old lady who startles him at intermission bears little resemblance to the vivacious, bold heiress and Radcliffe graduate he knew in the ‘50s. Lucy begins to tell Philip her life story, and though she is a tough critic of herself, the real villain in her account is her ex-husband Thomas, a successful banker born to working-class parents. The more she tells Philip, the more inquisitive he becomes. Was stable, square Thomas really the “monster” in their relationship? How much can Lucy’s explanation of events be trusted?

One by one, Phillip seeks out the moneyed old friends and acquaintances who knew Thomas and Lucy from their Cambridge and investment-banking days—his friend Alex van Buren, Thomas’s second wife Jane, another friend, Bill, and even Lucy and Thomas’s son Jamie—to cross-check her story. Initially, Philip’s obsession seems like the unrestrained curiosity of a lonely novelist still enamored with the upper-class chums of his college days. Later it resembles a character assassination led by a man and informed almost entirely by other men. Begley makes Lucy’s narration engrossing and seductive, but the version of events that Philip pieces together from his other sources is ruinous. (“She fucked up her life,” is how Bill puts it.) Memories of a Marriage is powerfully constructed, but Begley overplays his hand. Though Philip answers his questions about Lucy to his satisfaction, the reader is left with other questions—about the real the roots of Philip’s interest and the extent of his own biases. The flashes of self-awareness Philip experiences are too fleeting: “The finger pointed at the unreconstructed snob in me, who could not take his eyes off a damning piece of evidence: barely hatched, the self-made man had the temerity to marry an heiress.” Surely, an unreconstructed snob could misconstrue much more.

The Madonna on the Moon By Rolf Bauerdick A small-town boy’s quest to outwile the Communist Party bosses who abuse their power.

The year is 1957. The Soviet Union has launched Sputnik and communism is taking hold across eastern Europe. It’s made its way into the small fictional country under the Carpathian Mountains where German journalist Rolf Bauerdick’s first novel is set. “If you believed what the twenty-five-yard-long banners said, then our nation was the most progressive, most peaceful, and most productive of all nations, perpetually poised for above-average achievements,” Bauerdick’s narrator, Pavel, observes, though he is reaching some darker conclusions about his country. His sleepy village of Baia Luna has been turned upside down by two mysterious deaths. First, Father Johannes Baptiste is found in the rectory, his throat slit. Then, Pavel’s teacher Angela Barbulescu is found hung on the outskirts of town. Barbu, as she was known, was an inattentive instructor with a reputation as a drunk, but a few of her pupils—like Pavel—got a hint that there was more to her story.

Haunted by these deaths, Pavel goes looking for answers. The discovery of Barbu’s diary and a stash of old photos tell a more complicated story about her past. Employing every bit of small-town craftiness he can muster, Pavel begins a quest to take down the man he’s certain is behind Barbu’s downfall, a powerful party leader named Stephan Stephanescu. Bauerdick’s plot is thrilling, but it is exhausting in its delays and digressions, too. Must it really take more than 40 years for dirty pictures to catch up with a corrupt politician? Still, The Madonna on the Moon is a hopeful and frequently hilarious story of using one’s courage, patience, and wits to stand up against oppression. Weaving folklore, political drama, a coming-of-age story, and a morality tale together, Bauerdick has created an original.

The Measures Between UsBy Ethan HauserThree Boston families try to take measures against impending disasters.

Jack is an intern working on a study of climate change. Specifically, he researches floods. He spends his days in the library, transcribing interviews that psychologist Henry Wheeling has conducted with people who live along the Sparhawk River in Massachusetts. Occasionally, Jack visits the climate lab itself, a nondescript basement notable only for the beautifully elaborate scale model of the river. When he sneaks his girlfriend Cynthia into the facility, she’s fascinated by the Sparhawk, and admires the geological charts on the lab walls too. “I don’t know, so many numbers and patterns,” she says. “It must add up to something.”

But what exactly does it add up to? After Cynthia’s parents send her to a mental hospital, that’s the question her therapist, Dr. Eliot, wants an answer to as well. She’s not the only one adrift. Her father, Vincent, is facing the prospect of losing his job as a high school woodworking instructor, while his former student, Dr. Wheeling, is cheating on his pregnant wife and slowly watching the disintegration of his marriage. Can careful study and preparation make the inevitable natural disaster any more manageable? In this elegantly crafted debut, Hauser wields the metaphor of a strained river with care. The swirling currents of these characters’ personal tragedies connect them, but they render no easy answers.

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Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love By Sarah Butler Searching for love in unconventional places.

There are two sharply different narrators in Sarah Butler’s elegant and tender debut novel: Alice and Daniel. Alice is nearly 30, vulnerable and unsettled—no real career, no real plan, just the painful memory of an ex-boyfriend who refuses to marry her but won’t quite disappear from her life either. Finally, she musters up the courage to leave him, escaping to travel across Mongolia. When she returns to London, her father is dying. “The man in the bed does not look like my father,” she thinks. Watching him near the end of his life is painful. It’s something she’s underprepared to do. After all these years, she is still recovering from the death of her mother, who died in a car accident when Alice was just 4. That tragedy shook the whole family, but hit young Alice particularly hard. Does it explain why she turned out so different from her orderly, successful older sisters? Tilly and Cee couldn’t be more unlike Alice. Still, before he dies, her father promises her he has always loved his three girls just the same.

Like Alice, Daniel too is a wanderer. Though he’s homeless, worn down from many years living on the streets of London, something delicate about him remains. His health is faltering, but memories of better days and the thought of the mysterious daughter he’s never met—a girl he’s written birthday cards to every year of her life—sustain him. He is determined to find his daughter, and in good time, he does, as the two plots eventually intertwine. What results is no conventional love story, but a sensitive look at the meaning of family.