Caroline Leavitt’s 10th novel opens with an effective, efficient setup guaranteed to tantalize this bestselling author’s avid readership. Ava Lark comes home one afternoon in 1956, “having spent the whole morning arguing with a lawyer,” to find that 12-year-old Jimmy Rearson has picked the lock to let himself in.

In just two paragraphs we learn that Jimmy has a crush on Ava, her neighbors think she’s weird for locking her door and her odious ex-husband is threatening to challenge her for custody of their son, Lewis. It requires only a few more pages to inform us that Ava is stuck in suburban Boston, she’s got a lousy part-time job and money troubles, and whip-smart Lewis is so turned off by his anti-intellectual teachers that he’s nearly failing sixth grade. Jimmy and his older sister, Rose, are Lewis’s only friends.

None of this is exactly subtle. Do we really need to have a neighborhood kid tell Ava, “You killed Christ,” to get the point — anti-Semitism is overt and unabashed in narrow-minded Waltham? Must the local women make snide remarks about Ava’s dating while their husbands sniff around asking meaningfully, “Anything I can do?” Maybe not, but these broad caricatures swiftly arouse our sympathy for Ava and our curiosity about her further trials.

We don’t have long to wait. Jimmy goes missing shortly after Ava shoos him out of her kitchen, and the police are soon insinuating that there was something odd about their relationship. When they interview her sweet new boyfriend, Jake (a jazz musician — clearly suspicious), he’s so frightened that he leaves town. After more than a year of vainly hoping that Jimmy will be found, his traumatized mother sells their house and moves to Pittsburgh with the miserable Rose.

Vividly drawn and emotionally engaging, the novel’s first half intertwines the fallout from Jimmy’s disappearance with compelling flashbacks to Ava’s failed marriage and a poignant portrait of Lewis’s yearning for his absent father. When the narrative leaps ahead to 1963, however, he and Rose are stalled in depressive states that cast a pall over the rest of the story. Lewis, a nurse’s aide in Wisconsin, can’t share his feelings with anyone; Rose, a Michigan schoolteacher, panics whenever she sees an unsupervised child. The revelation of what happened to Jimmy is chilling, but its impact is muffled by two ridiculously contrived confessions. Ava isn’t even present for the mystery’s final unraveling, a misguided sidelining of Leavitt’s most fully fleshed character. “Is This Tomorrow” roars out of the starting gate but falters well before the finish line.

”Is This Tomorrow” by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin)

Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940,” which will be reissued in August.


By Caroline Leavitt

Algonquin. 360 pp. Paperback, $14.95