The family’s cottage was called the Ocean Mist, and it was nothing fancy — a few rooms of clean white walls and fluttering curtains, a couple of blocks from a melancholy stretch of beach. In the early 1970s, in a scruffy seaside town north of Boston, it was the first home that Susan Dubie ever knew.
Inside that cozy nest, her mother, Linda, read her stories and her father, Daniel, joined her in games of hide-and-seek. Young working-class parents, they doted on their toddler even as their marriage splintered, sabotaged by Daniel’s unfounded jealousy.
On the evening when he murdered Linda in an eruption of possessive rage, Susan was only 3. And she was standing right there.
In “Gone So Long,” Andre Dubus III’s first novel since “The Garden of Last Days,” in 2008, Linda’s death is the grisly trauma that blasts a gaping hole in the lives of the people who survive her. Forty years on, as the book begins, her killing remains a debilitating psychic wound for Susan, a writer and academic who is the picture of her stunning mom; for Lois, Linda’s once exuberant mother, now fearful and embittered; and for Daniel, decades out of prison and yearning for his daughter.
“I haven’t seen her since she was a little kid,” Daniel tells a stranger around Susan’s age. “If that was your father, would you want to see him after those many years?”
“It would depend on why he’s been gone so long,” the stranger says.
There are more reasons than you might think — not just the 15 years Daniel served behind bars but also the letters he wrote from prison that Lois, who raised Susan, resolutely threw away. Meaning to spare her the knowledge that her father was a murderer and her mother his victim, Lois told Susan that her parents had perished together in a car crash.
Lois could not bear that she had failed to shield Linda from harm, and she was not going to make that mistake with Susan. “She’d seen the worst thing a child could see and so Lois had her marching orders. She’d just show that child a million things that were bright and safe and happy. She would do that over an entire childhood. She would bury those horrible moments under an avalanche of love.”
In doing so, of course, Lois made other mistakes, damaging Susan and their relationship in ways she never meant. When Susan, at 20, finally learned from Lois that Daniel was still alive, she went looking for him. Even at 43, a part of her still wants her dad.
Full of ghosts and regrets and glimmering shards of excavated memory, “Gone So Long” is about destruction and redemption and the stupid, stubborn way people have of squandering love. Daniel did that not only with Linda — unforgivably, he knows — but also with Susan, who was ripped from his arms forever that night when the police arrived.
Now he’s 63, living a deliberate, reflective, agonized life. He has prostate cancer that’s getting bad, and he doesn’t want to treat it. But he would like, before he dies, to find Susan, who moved with Lois to a Florida town called Arcadia when she was 12, leaving behind the amusement park arcade her grandparents had run in Massachusetts.
This novel is an ensemble piece, each chapter told from the point of view of a different principal. Yet Susan is at its center, with Lois and Daniel revolving around her. Dubus has drawn the two of them beautifully, and with immense sympathy.
Lois’s surface meanness is part of her protective carapace, but her hunger for vengeance is real enough. Even at 82 and in iffy health, she absolutely would shoot Daniel if she ever saw him again. (Susan’s kindly musicologist husband, Bobby, though, she adores.) Daniel, meanwhile, remains so stricken by his crime that when he writes to Susan, trying to explain the kind of person he used to be, he speaks about his younger self in the third person.
Susan is only partially successful as a character, because Dubus seems distractingly unable to imagine the interior life of an attractive, intelligent, emotionally numbed woman who has lots of sex. (About that: It’s a perversely Freudian quality to bestow on a character whose mother was murdered by a husband who constantly, wrongly, suspected her of infidelity. And it does feel bestowed.)
Inadvisably large swaths of the book consist of Susan’s own strained writing, as when she recalls an abortion she had as an undergraduate: “and she wasn’t even sure which boy’s it was she had vacuumed out of her in that cold windowless room, the fluorescent light above her so bright but far away, like it was time for her to be judged but no one really had the time.” When she falls asleep naked with a female roommate (“We had no air conditioner”), there’s more than a whiff of Penthouse Letters to what happens next. Even then, weirdly, Susan is hungry for the male gaze.
And yet the novel otherwise works, its last 100 or so pages whipping by in a series of crises and near misses and realizations that the healing we so want for these broken people might not come for all of them. Not if their minds are too crowded with the past to speak a few true words to the people they love, while there’s still time.
GONE SO LONG
By Andre Dubus III
Norton, 452 pp., $27.95
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.