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Originally published Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Songs for the Missing" a tale of a parent's worst nightmare

Stewart O'Nan's novel "Songs for the Missing" is a wrenching and illuminating look at what happens when a pretty, popular teenager in an Ohio town disappears.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Songs for the Missing"

by Stewart O'Nan

Viking/Penguin, 320 pp., $25.95

Day after day, we are inundated with harrowing media stories of children who have gone missing, and the sad spectacle of their distraught yet hopeful family members pleading on-camera for their safe return.

Such real-life terrors are disturbing enough. So why write (or read) a fictional work about the sudden disappearance of a pretty, popular teenage girl in a small Ohio town and its impact on her friends and family?

There are, in fact, good reasons to pick up Stewart O'Nan's fine novel "Songs for the Missing." They include the psychological insight, textured candor and multiple perspectives this author brings to a tale that is, inescapably, true to the tenor of our time.

The novel starts with the bright and self-confident Kim Larsen savoring the landmark summer after her high-school graduation, as she hangs out with friends and works at a gas station before going away to college.

Then Kim suddenly vanishes, entering a void somewhere between driving from her home to her job. And "Songs for the Missing" becomes a chorus of varied viewpoints — with alternating chapters written from the perspective of Kim's anxious father, Ed, a real-estate agent, and her mother, Fran, a hospital clerk, as well as Kim's boyfriend, her younger sister Lindsay and her two closest female pals.

During an agonizingly slow search by police with few leads, Ed and Fran keep anguish at bay by posting fliers and organizing search parties to hunt down their daughter.

A few surprising revelations come to light (of low-level drug dealing and a sexual fling with an unsavory character), which are reminders of how little many working parents really know about what their kids are up to.

But over time, the story becomes less about what happened to Kim and more of a finely shaded study of a middle-class, middle-American family under duress, and a community doing what it can to help.

In knowing detail, O'Nan conjures the landscape as well as the people in this "typical" slice of Midwest exurbia — where public life unfolds at the local Dairy Queen, the town shopping mall, the teenage swimming hole, the high-school gym.

Fran and Ed are not culturally sophisticated people. But they are good, decent folk, and very recognizable in their humanity as they move through shock, guilt, anger and acceptance.

O'Nan also sensitively observes the fraying and deepening of relationships during trauma, and the unexpected ways it can change people. The most changed is Fran, who ironically comes into her own as she moves out of her comfort zone and into the role of activist on behalf of her own child and others.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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