The eeriness started when the phone rang: a hang-up call to Helen from her best friend Charlie’s number. Except that Charlie had been dead for hours by then.
Whoever was on the other end of that call, whoever used Charlie’s cellphone in the months that followed to send Helen cryptic texts, it wasn’t the person she most longed to hear from. These messages, at once comforting and disquieting, were certainly not arriving from the afterlife.
“I should say right away that I don’t believe in ghosts,” Helen, an MIT physics professor, stipulates at the start of Nell Freudenberger’s brainy and endearing third novel, “Lost and Wanted.” Which doesn’t mean she isn’t tempted by the idea.
Brilliant, gorgeous, funny Charlie — short for Charlotte — had been only 45, with a thriving career as a screenwriter. Living on opposite coasts, high-achieving women in male-dominated fields, she and Helen had drifted in their contact in recent years. Yet they’d cherished each other since freshman year at Harvard, one “an upper-middle-class black girl’’ and the other “a work-study white science nerd.’’ Charlie’s glamour and daring stood in shimmering contrast to Helen’s no-frills practicality.
Helen, our narrator, isn’t wild about using scientific metaphors to describe emotional dynamics, but she does mention quantum entanglement, “which Einstein once dismissed as ‘spooky action at a distance.’ It’s a real phenomenon, though, one that has less to do with communication than with a shared history that causes a pair of particles, even once they’ve been permanently separated, to behave as if they knew what each other was thinking.”
As much as “Lost and Wanted” is a novel of grief, then, it’s also an account, from a couple decades’ distance, of dazzling friends who shared a vital period of their youth, sparking off one another and helping to shape the person each would become.
The real-life pang built into Freudenberger’s fiction is most palpable on the dedication page. “For Michael Friedman,” it says, and with those words you realize that Helen’s yearning for Charlie — her wish, despite all of her science-mindedness, that her friend would return even for an instant — is a feeling that Freudenberger (“The Newlyweds”) understands.
Friedman, a composer and one of the creators of the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” was at Harvard with Freudenberger. His death in 2017 at 41 from complications of HIV/AIDS stunned the theater world.
Tracing the long process of absorbing such a staggering loss, the novel opens in the first dazed stages of mourning. That’s where Charlie’s gentle surfer husband, Terrence, and young daughter, Simmi, are mired when they arrive in Brookline from Los Angeles to live, for a while, with Charlie’s stricken parents.
Addie and Carl had known how ill their child was, but not that she intended to die by assisted suicide. She’d explained it all in an e-mail that she never sent — a message that Terrence can’t retrieve without access to her phone, which has gone missing. Absent that proof, Charlie’s parents harbor suspicions about their son-in-law’s explanation and their daughter’s death.
Terrence and Simmi soon cross the river to flee that tension, moving into an apartment in Helen’s Cambridge house. Deliberately, she fails to mention the odd thing that her 7-year-old, Jack, told her in passing a few weeks after Charlie died: that he’d seen her upstairs, sitting at Helen’s desk.
Intimations of the paranormal flicker through the novel, seeding certainty with doubt even as the work of Helen and her fellow physicists underlines how much we may not know about the universe and its dimensions. Intimations of the stubbornly normal are here, too, as Freudenberger examines the maddening ways that biases around race and sex and class can warp a life’s trajectory.
The nerd factor can get exceptionally high in “Lost and Wanted,” sometimes numbingly so when Helen — a best-selling author of pop-physics books — goes into scientific detail in her narration. It’s much better when she speaks these explanations in Freudenberger’s warm, enlivening dialogue. Helen is stiff by nature, somewhat trapped in her head, which for the reader can be an awkward space.
She grows into a deeply sympathetic heroine, though, and in her complexity and conflictedness we see a whole human being. Tormented by what she might have done differently with Charlie (“I had respected the boundaries she put up around her disease so carefully that our friendship had been squeezed out”), she is also, rather self-consciously, attracted to the beautiful Terrence as they help each other mourn.
In the texture of these characters’ lives, Freudenberger tells a story of connections forged and severed, of love orphaned of its object. “Lost and Wanted” is about having basked in a glow that should have shone so much longer — about not knowing where that light went, or what to do with the black hole it left behind.
By Nell Freudenberger
Knopf, 336 pp., $26.95
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.