Falling in love and losing a loved one are two of the most common human experiences. Though the two seem diametrically opposed, the arc of our humanity reveals ways in which we can find solace and gravity in both occurrences. Pulitzer Prize winner and New Yorker magazine staff writer Kathryn Schulz’s new book, “Lost & Found,” is a memoir framed simply around two remarkable life events: the death of her father and meeting the love of her life 18 months earlier.
Recalling how loss felt to her after her father died, Schulz recounts, “I found myself keeping a list of all the other things I had lost over time, because they kept coming to mind unbidden. . . . Any list like this — and all of us have one — quickly reveals the strangeness of the category of loss: how enormous and awkward it is, how little its contents have in common. I was surprised to realize, when I first began thinking about it, that some kinds of loss are actually positive.”
Schulz’s mind flows beautifully on the page. While this book is classified as a memoir, it can also be read as a sweeping set of essays. Schulz’s prose is lucid and intentional, yet unexpected and compassionate. She doesn’t race to make her point and that expansive pace is what makes this book such a pleasure. Hers is a nimble and profoundly humane mind, capable of carrying the various threads of her thinking onward without losing the integrity of the fabric she’s creating. Although Schulz writes with loving detail about her father (an immigrant to the United States, who before the age of 12 “had lived on a commune and in a war zone, in the Middle East and in Europe, in the burning forge that made Israel and the cooling embers of the Third Reich”), she does so as a means of exploring the universal experience of loss rather than simply eulogizing her father.
Schulz uses her life’s stories as a launching point for an omnivore’s exploration of science, space, history, art, and writing in order to elaborate her points. Rather than dwell on her personal life, weighing the reader down with the operatic twists of some memoirs, Schulz treads lightly on the drama of her days. She’s not writing for her own personal catharsis. In the wake of Joan Didion’s death, I returned to her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” and, while it remains to me a tremendous work, found it a stark contrast to Schulz’s grounded memoir. The two are conducting radically different explorations of loss.
This is not to say that there’s a cool or clinical remove to “Lost & Found.” While this memoir is no quest for healing or a chronicle of family secrets, there is great weight in Schulz’s most personal moments. Being privy to her budding romance is a window into intense tenderness and deep gratitude. Although Tolstoy famously dismissed the domestic joy Schulz enjoys (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”), Schulz eschews the unpacking of resentments and disappointments. This frees her to fully explore the interconnectedness of these basic concepts of loss, discovery, and the word that fuses so much of life together, “and.”
Schulz writes, “The feeling of ‘and’ is not just a feeling of conjunction; it is also a feeling of continuation. The abundance which it gestures — the sense that there is always something more — is not only spatial but also temporal.” Unraveling the deceptively simple conjunction allows the memoir to land on an imaginative and reflective note. Where other memoirs concentrate on facts and family history, Schulz finds a way to subvert the genre, taking it to philosophical levels while maintaining a grounded intimacy. Schulz is forever looking outward, seizing this hard-earned optimism through thorough examination and vulnerability rather than blind faith.
Schulz argues that the bridge created by “and” allows one to live most authentically. Doing so creates space for humor and warmth during the tragedies of our life while offering relief to the periods of ecstasy, a way of truly appreciating them. She considers, “Life, too, goes by contraries: it is by turns crushing and restorative, busy and boring, awful and absurd and comic and uplifting. We can’t get away from this constant amalgamation of feeling, can’t strain out the ostensible impurities in pursuit of some imaginary essence, and we shouldn’t want to if we could. The world in all its complexity calls on us to respond in kind, so that to be conflicted is not to be adulterated; it is to be complete.”
It would be impossible to overlook Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” in a book such as this, and Schulz spends time with Bishop’s echoes, but also builds on its “art of losing” through her own graceful words: “We are here to keep watch, not to keep.” The generous manner in which “Lost & Found” centers loss in relation to the sensation of being found is remarkable. For anyone for whom loss is deeply fraught, this book is a necessary gift.
Lauren LeBlanc is a writer and editor who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.
Lost & Found: A Memoir
Random House, 256 pages, $27