Lives Altered in the Blink of an Eye
Friday, March 30, 2007
THE YEAR OF FOG
By Michelle Richmond
Delacorte. 369 pp. $20
Abby Mason, a freelance photographer based in San Francisco, walks along the rather strange stretch of Ocean Beach, an isolated margin by the Pacific, with her stepdaughter-to-be, Emma, who's 6 years old and a handful. Jake, Abby's husband-to-be, is off seeing an old friend this weekend, and Abby knows that her babysitting chore is part of a fairly elaborate audition about getting married. Jake has been left by Lisbeth, his first wife, a heroin addict, and is looking for a suitable mother for Emma, among other things.
But Abby screws up. She's a photographer, after all, and her attention is distracted by a dead seal. She snaps a picture, and another, and when she looks up, little Emma is gone, disappeared into ubiquitous, treacherous San Francisco fog. Then Abby must call her fiance, who, when he hears about this catastrophe, utters the memorable line, "How could you? . . . God, Abby, how could you?"
Of course, from Page 14, the reader identifies Jake as a spineless, second-rate sidewinder. But Abby knows she's in love with him, and in true female tradition, takes on all the responsibility for what's happened. How could she have done it? How could she have, even for a moment, looked away?
Thereafter follows a narrative of desperate-parent porn. We are forced to consider what has happened to the thousands of missing children all over the country -- the raped and murdered ones, those who have been kidnapped by ex-spouses, those who have been kidnapped by perverts or people who are madly lonely; all those little kids we see on milk cartons.
At first "The Year of Fog" reads like a dreadful how-to book: "What to Expect When Your Child Is Kidnapped." Both Abby and Jake are asked to endure lie-detector tests. The police mention (casually? menacingly?) that in disappearances such as this the primary suspects usually come from the immediate family. Was Emma going to be an impediment to Abby and Jake's upcoming marriage? And what about Lisbeth, Emma's mother? When the case hits the newspapers and television, why doesn't Lisbeth immediately come forward? Again, the cops seem uninterested, muttering something about how hard it is to find somebody when she doesn't want to be found.
They think Emma has drowned. This particular stretch of beach has always been notorious for its monstrous, unexpected rogue waves. But Jake and Abby, devastated by grief, put out fliers anyway, set up a command post, recruit volunteers, give interviews to anyone who will listen. Because, as the whole world knows, the longer a missing child is gone, the larger the chance that he or she will never turn up again. Jake goes on a national television talk show. Abby, as befits her secondary position, appears on a local one, where, unexpectedly, that addict first wife finally turns up, well groomed and a little plump, to tell her side of the story, which is far from complimentary about Abby.
"The Year of Fog" is ambitious, or that at least seems to be the author's intention. Beyond the story of love-gone-wrong and the mystery of the missing child, it aims to offer a meditation on memory. If Abby could just remember the moments before Emma disappeared, she might be able to solve the mystery of what happened. She does remember a couple of parked cars and some people in them, but she can't recall any specifics. A helpful elderly neighbor pulls out dozens of books on memory from the library, and the reader may learn more than he or she would ever want to know about this process.
The novel is also repetitive. Chapter after chapter ends with some sentimental recollection about how much Abby loved Jake and little Emma, and how that familial harmony will never be the same again. Whole chapters about their domestic habits could have been cut here, with no harm done to the story. But the novel is also about obsession, and obsessives repeat themselves.
As the weeks wear on, Jake withdraws. Is he grief-stricken or just a jerk? It's hard to know. And we begin to learn a little more about Abby -- why she yearns so for domestic bliss. Her own parents were wretchedly unhappy together. When she was a child, one day at the beach she saw another child drown. When she was a rebellious teenager, she took up with Ramon, a photographer in his 20s, who seduced her and took photographs of her in the nude. When Ramon died under mysterious circumstances, his sister sent those nude photographs to Abby's mother, who threw a predictable conniption fit, took Abby out of school and made her go to a support group for sex addicts. But who, in the couple that was Ramon and Abby, really seduced whom? Who was the more helplessly in love? Whom the real victim?