Karen Brown's first novel, The Longings of Wayward Girls, is set in a picturesque Connecticut town where stay-at-home moms drive SUVs and neighbors gather for boisterous summer barbecues. It may not seem a likely setting for a ghost story, but this novel is haunted — by missing children, and by missing mothers.
Brown grew up in a town very like the novel's fictionalized Wintonbury, but she has lived for many years in Tampa, where she teaches in the University of South Florida English department's creative writing program.
Longings is Brown's first novel, after two accomplished collections of short stories. The first, Pins & Needles, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction in 2006. The second, Little Sinners and Other Stories, was named a Best Book of 2012 by Publishers Weekly and just won the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award, a prize given to Meg Wolitzer in 2012 and Jonathan Franzen in 2011.
In Longings Brown returns to many of the elements she writes about in those stories: coming of age, first and/or illicit sexual relationships, family dynamics and secrets. Chapters alternate between two summers, one in the near present, the other 24 years earlier.
In 1979, the book's main character, Sadie Watkins, is about to turn 13. The book actually begins five years before that, with a newspaper clipping from 1974 about 9-year-old Laura Loomis, who left a friend's house in Wintonbury to walk home one afternoon and was never seen again. Sadie, we're told, so resembles Laura that she's sometimes mistaken for the missing girl by townsfolk who for a moment think she is either a miracle or a ghost.
Sadie is neither, just the only child of a distracted dad and a dramatic mother. Glamorous Clare Watkins is a regular in local theater productions — in the summer of '79 she's rehearsing The Night of the Iguana — and an unpredictable, often mysterious mother.
To while away the boring hot months, Sadie and her best friend, Betty, concoct an elaborate prank to play on a neighborhood outcast. Francie Bingham is a little odd, a little needy, a little pushy — the perfect target. Sadie and Betty draw her into a correspondence with an imaginary boy that will have unexpected and terrible consequences.
In 2003, Sadie Stahl still lives in the same town, married to devoted, dashing Craig and loving mother of Sylvia and Max. She's haunted, though, by the outcome of that long-ago prank, by the death of her mother in the same summer, and by a rawly new loss: the stillbirth of her third child, a daughter.
In the haze of grief, Sadie discovers she may be a ghost herself for someone when a figure from her past returns to town. Ray Filley is a member of one of the town's oldest families. (They have their own ghost, an 18th century teenage girl who drowned after losing a child.) When Sadie runs into Ray, a much-traveled musician, he's taken aback — and she explains, as always, that no, she's not Laura Loomis. But the ghost Ray sees is Clare.
Sadie remembers Ray as a boy slightly older than her, attractive but cocky and a little dangerous. He hasn't changed, and soon he is sweeping her into an affair that both frightens and delights her: "The next day she has marks from his fingertips — on her arms, her thighs. Her mouth feels bruised and raw. And yet it's as if she'd been sparked to life, and she's become the protagonist of the latest erotic novel the neighborhood women pass around."
Brown has always been adept at writing about adultery, skillfully evoking its interlocking elements of thrill and threat. In Longings the danger level intensifies as secrets old and new are gradually revealed, and Sadie's comfortable life hangs in the balance — especially when another young girl goes missing.
Both the sex and the suspense benefit from how well Brown grounds them in sharply observed reality. The neighborhood, past and present, comes vividly to life with its shifting alliances among girls and grown women, relationships that range from deeply supportive to devastatingly cruel. She also does a fine job of delineating the points of view of the two Sadies, the compulsively nosy 12-year-old and the secretive 36-year-old.
For both of them, the bonds between mothers and daughters are a profound puzzle. Its solution may never be perfect, but in The Longings of Wayward Girls Brown puts the pieces together to moving effect.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.