Author: Rosecrans Baldwin

2010, Riverhead Books

Filed under: Literary

You Lost Me There is an atmospheric novel, in the same vein as Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time—only Lost is affecting and layered, where Curse was spare and unenjoyable. Baldwin writes smoothly and well, and though he occasionally hiccups, he still delivers a nuanced, wrenching character study.

The character being studied: Victor Aaron, a 60-ish research scientist living on a tiny island in Maine. His wife, Sara, died a few years ago, and he’s been gripped, since even before her death, in the fist of a formless depression.

Victor and Sara had a vibrant, loving marriage, one that lasted decades, and that made the sting of its downslide all the more painful. He realized that he was a neglectful husband a few years before Sara’s death, and tried to change unsuccessfully. Then she died in a car accident, and left Victor with an awful mix of grief and regret.

The novel is primarily an exploration of that regret, which sharpens when Victor discovers a box full of index cards, dozens of them, on which his late wife detailed for her therapist her unhappy marriage. Baldwin pads the story with some interesting twists and characters, and he makes the ride an entertaining one, to an infinite degree more than Petterson did. But Lost is not, as its cover claims, very funny, or charming, and you should know that before you decide whether to read it: at its core, and at its best, this is a book about a man being sad.

The main characters, in their thumbnail descriptions, break little new ground. Victor studies Alzheimer’s, working long hours writing grants and running a prestigious lab. Sara wrote plays and screenplays, and catalogued the emotions of their marriage in her best work. They are male and female archetypes, exaggerated: he’s incapable of letting himself feel sad, without trying to solve it like a problem; she’s flighty and brash, and incapable of telling him directly (except through posthumous index cards) exactly why she’s unhappy.

Their relationship, however, and the crumbling of it, still succeed quite well: Victor and Sara share an intense love, and approach their marriage from wildly disparate, but believable perspectives. Later, though Victor loves Sara completely until the end and it hurts him to feel her slipping away, he never knows exactly how he’s failing her until after her death.

The other elements in Victor’s life—his successful but grinding lab work, his new crazy girlfriend, the old friend he hates, and the friend’s daughter he’s obviously attracted to, though he never admits it—none of these are entirely original, and it is perhaps that unoriginality that holds the novel back from greatness. Instead, Lost could be called successful, or effective, which undercuts its emotionality but allows for its unevenness.

Baldwin’s writing is likewise effective, i.e. good but not without hiccups, like this one, from one of Sara’s cards:

He was so focused on research and making a name for himself that we were landlocked by his lab schedule, him at sea and me in the window.

Such lines often feel careless, and overwrought. Baldwin’s quieter lines are often his most successful, like this one:

Saturday night, the sky was a scratched plum, purple over gold flesh.

Too often Baldwin tries too hard to hit a home run, and strikes out instead. It’s most obvious when he lays down carefully crafted—not to say contrived… not quite—book group tidbits, designed to foster discussion. For example, there’s the scene in which Victor, with a line from his crazy girlfriend’s poem stuck in his head, swims too far out into the ocean and almost drowns.

Then there’s the everpresent theme of memory. Victor researches memory, and frequently discovers that he’s remembered something wrong. We get interpretations of memory from both a scientific and an artistic perspective. Memory is both unreliable and the chief material with which we build our lives and our ideas of ourselves. Therefore, our ideas of ourselves are unreliable, which leaves the gate open for devastating epiphanies. This is, of course, a crucial element of the novel, but the frequency with which Baldwin mentions memory makes it stale by the book’s end.

Until that end, though, Lost is at its best when it’s simply portraying the complex pain that comes from seeing yourself, with all your faults, through the eyes of someone you love, and the pain of having regrets that you are absolutely powerless to fix. Baldwin, when he’s not trying too hard, does this well, and that makes the novel a success, if not a home run.

Similar reads: I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson; The Believers, by Zoe Heller