“What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” an interesting first novel by Washington area journalist Rachel Louise Snyder, is actually more of an essay on the effects of social engineering. It’s set in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, where community organizers have been working for decades to integrate residences. Their guiding principle is that the more blacks and whites get to know each other, the better everyone will get along.
On one ordinary day, on a street adjacent to some integrated housing, a series of home invasions occurs, throwing the neighborhood into a tizzy. The action of the novel focuses mainly on one family, the McPhersons. The mother, Susan, has worked for years as an advocate for integration, trying to persuade people to move into beautifully appointed apartments, which reluctant renters perceive as too close to blacks. Susan is hardworking, a true believer, a good wife and mother. Her husband, Michael, is another story. He finds it difficult to keep a job or much self-respect. There’s a cognitive disconnect between how he sees himself (a born leader) and what he really might be (a failure). But perhaps most important to this story is their teenage daughter, Mary Elizabeth, who happens to be home during the break-in. She’s cut school and is doing ecstasy with an Asian girlfriend who lives down the block; they’re holding hands and giggling under the dining room table as the thieves come in, then leave.
This crime has a wonderful side effect for Mary Elizabeth: The next day at school, she’s the center of attention and even draws the admiration of Caz, the meanest, coolest student. He deigns to have lunch with her, and it’s settled that he’ll come home with her after school when her parents won’t be there.
Although the home invasions don’t involve any serious losses, they shake the neighborhood’s sense of safety. For everyone who believes the community goodwill party line, there are many who don’t. Caz casually shoots down Mary Elizabeth when she tries to explain what her mother does for a living: “People are people,” he says. “Blacks, whites, whatever . . . we’re not going to stop hating each other.”
Michael McPherson sees this moment of crisis in his neighborhood as an opportunity to seize leadership — although of what, it’s hard to say. He gives an impromptu press conference in which he intones, “What we’ve lost is nothing,” which is true in one way. But the status quo has been shattered. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, no one can tell yet.
There are several other families touched by these crimes, and because this is a novel of ideas, each resident represents a particular aspect of society. Arthur, for instance, lives alone and suffers from day blindness. The burglars have stolen his life’s work, which has to do with interpreting life by voice alone. Why his notebooks have been taken is a mystery. But these events lead to his unlikely friendship with Mary Elizabeth. A young couple dominated by the wife’s parents for years might finally be motivated by this crime to move away. There’s an Asian family, parents of the girl who did drugs with Mary Elizabeth, whose language limitations leave them totally in the dark about what’s happening. And there’s a poor bachelor who runs a French restaurant — except he’s not French, and no one goes to his restaurant. The robbery shatters his life, but maybe he’ll get a better one.
Information about the thefts circulates by blog and through chat rooms, as Susan, Michael and Mary Elizabeth blunder toward their separate destinies. Ideas abound in this thoughtful story, a demonstration of the author’s years of experience as a community organizer. “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing” has the stamp of authenticity.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post. At 6 p.m. Saturday, Rachel Louise Snyder will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
WHAT WE’VE LOST IS NOTHING
By Rachel Louise Snyder
Scribner. 302 pp. $25.