By Fiona Zublin
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; C04
YOU LOST ME THERE
By Rosecrans Baldwin
Riverhead. 296 pp. $25.95
In "You Lost Me There," the first novel by North Carolina author Rosecrans Baldwin, grief seems like a puzzle to be solved, but it turns out to be as complicated and unknowable as the Atlantic Ocean, as our own brains.
Dr. Victor Aaron is an aging Alzheimer's researcher whose wife, Sara, has died. He lives on an island in a foggy New England town (the fog, you see, is a metaphor). Early fears that this might degenerate into one of those stories about an older man lamenting his lost vitality by sleeping with younger women are happily allayed. Instead, it's about a man deteriorating, so incapable of grief that he shuts down, so focused on memories of his perfect marriage that he forgets what really happened.
Over and over again, Victor, his sometime lover, Regina, and his goddaughter, Cornelia, analyze their lives and come up with misconceptions. All these characters are smart people who just miss out on insight, often because they're determined to acknowledge the superficiality of their lives and love affairs. They understand that there are no new stories, but they forget that nothing is simple, least of all the cliches that make up human life.
Although "You Lost Me There" is moving and genuine, it's not always enjoyable. Baldwin is not writing about the kind of sadness that can sweep us away, the Heathcliff-banging-his-forehead-on-a-tree kind of grief. The sadness in these pages is about the emotional inadequacy that everyone feels, that total loneliness that overtakes us despite love and family, and the ultimate fear of losing our faculties, losing what makes us who we are.
After early intimations that this might be a story about true love torn asunder by death, the bleakness is tough to confront. There's romance, Victor says when describing a Dvorak sonata, "but more important, there was wretchedness underneath."
Baldwin's prose is wise and nimble, clever without being self-conscious, true to the myriad voices of his characters. Though most of the novel is told by Victor, we get snatches of prose in Sara's voice, which Baldwin does so nicely that it's frustrating that we get to hear from her only a few times. Like Victor, we want more of her, but she gets lost in the fog, too.
Zublin is a writer and editor for the Washington Post Express.