Receiving an unsettling phone call from her former college roommate, who has just died, a rationally minded MIT professor reflects on their once-close friendship, her friend's tragic death, and her own rediscovered feelings for a fellow scientist.
Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novels The Newlyweds and The Dissident, and of the story collection Lucky Girls, which won the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Named one of The New Yorker's "20 under 40" in 2010, she is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
*Starred Review* Physics in Fiction They were roommates at Harvard. Charlie (for Charlotte), artistic, gorgeous, sophisticated, and devoted to acting and French literature, hailed from a distinguished, well-off African American family in Brookline. Style-challenged, awkward, and mathematically gifted Helen was a "work-study white science nerd from Pasadena," enthralled by quantum physics. The two ambitious young women grew close in what became primarily a long-distance friendship as Charlie excelled in Hollywood as a screenwriter, and Helen thrived as a prominent physicist at MIT. Both had to overcome sexism, but Charlie also had to contend with sexual harassment and racism. Their paths to motherhood agitated their families. Charlie married Terrence, a California surfer who her parents felt was far beneath her. They had a daughter, Simmi. At 36, Helen chose an anonymous sperm donor and had Jack. As the novel opens, Simmi and Jack are in elementary school, and Charlie is dead. Yet she seems to be calling and texting Helen. There's a fair amount of spookiness in physics, and the language is seductively poetic. Freudenberger (The Newlyweds, 2012) is exceptionally conversant in this heady realm, and her obvious pleasure in physics, including the mind-bending work at such facilities as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Large Hadron Collider, ensures that Helen is a mesmerizing narrator. Irresistibly forthright about her failings, she is laser-sharp professionally, and her urge to share her enthusiasm has inspired her to write internationally popular trade books. But she is stymied by the mystery of the increasingly unnerving texts sent from Charlie's missing phone and by a tsunami of vivid memories. As space and time curve and bend in electrifying flashbacks, Helen struggles through highly charged encounters with Charlie's grieving and furious parents and traumatized Terrence and Simmi, who have moved to Boston to try to fill the void. Helen and Terrence circle each other warily, but Jack and Simmi bond instantly. And if all the emotional and logistical turmoil isn't enough to distract Helen from her demanding schedule, physicist Neel, with whom she made the great discovery that brought her fame and tenure, and the man we begin to suspect may be her one true love, has also relocated from California. Triumphant over his part in a revolutionary breakthrough, the observation of gravitational waves, he is hoping to team up with Helen again, even as he invites her to his engagement party. As more details emerge about Charlie's suffering and death, about how her loved ones, each so astutely rendered and compelling, attempt to move on, and as Helen's own thwarted desires collide, Freudenberger is spellbinding in her imaginative use of particle physics as a mirror of human entanglement and uncertainty. We do learn about Helen's specialty-five-dimensional space-time and the dynamics of black holes-but Freudenberger is also postulating a profoundly resonant physics of emotions and longings, families and friendship, love and marriage, loss and mourning. As original as this deeply involving, substantial, suspenseful, and psychologically lush novel is, Freudenberger is in good company in her venture into the curious alignments among physics, memory, sorrow, and the fate of consciousness after death. There is precedence in physicist and grandly inventive novelist Alan Lightman's Ghost (2007) and Reunion (2003), while in Einstein's Dreams (1993) and Mr g (2012), Lightman translates quantum theory into keenly visualized alternative realities. In her brainy and glimmering novels, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein unites metaphysics, mathematics, physics, and complicated human interactions. The title of Jeanette Winterson's novel Gut Symmetries (1997) is a tease: GUT is the acronym for the holy grail of physics, the grand unified theory. Other stellar physics-laced novels include Richard Powers' A Time of Our Singing (2003); Charmed Particles, by Chrissy Kolaya (2015); and The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs (2018). With daring, zest, insight, wit, and compassion, Lost and Wanted and its kindred novels gracefully and thrillingly bridge the divide between science and art. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
A physicist at MIT receives a text from her dead best friend. "In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently," Helen Clapp explains at the outset of Freudenberger's (The Newlyweds, 2012, etc.) third novel. Charlie Boyce and Helen met freshman year at Harvard. Though they were "an upper-middle-class black girl from Brookline"—Charlie—"and a work-study white science nerd from Pasadena"—Helen—their friendship took flight, powered by in-jokes, catchphrases, shared ambitions, and theories about life. After graduation, Charlie moved to LA and became a screenwriter, married a surfer, had a little girl. Helen stayed in Boston and became famous as one of the authors of the Clapp-Jonnal model "for quark gluon plasma as a dual black hole in five-dimensional space-time." She wrote two bestselling science books and gained an endowed chair at MIT; her 7-year-old son, Jack, whose father was an anonymous sperm donor, became the "love of [her] life." As the novel begins, Charlie has just died of lupus. Though they hadn't spoken for over a year, Helen is now receiving texts from Charlie's cellphone, which her husband hasn't been able to find since she died. Strangely, they seem like they could only have been written by...Charlie? Meanwhile, said husband and daughter come to stay with Charlie's parents in Boston; also back in town is Neel Jonnal, Helen's college boyfriend and collaborator, now with a fiancee. Complications ensue, though not the predictable soap-opera ones you'd imagine. Freudenberger is good at explaining physics, but her real genius is in the depiction of relationships. Each one in the novel, whether between adults, adults and children, or among children, is unique, finely calibrated, and real. The title is a line from a poem by W.H. Auden which doesn't fully hit until the end of the book, when it takes on heart-rending poignancy. Brimming with wit and intelligence and devoted to things that matter: life, love, death, and the mysteries of the cosmos. Copyright Kirkus 2019 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Lost and Wanted:
In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently. This was even more surprising than it might have been, since Charlie wasn’t a good correspondent even when she was alive.
I should say right away that I don’t believe in ghosts—although I’ve learned that forty-five percent of Americans do—at least not in the sense of the glaucous beings who appear on staircases, in abandoned farmyards, or on the film or digital records of events that absolutely did not include, say, a brown dog in the lower left-hand corner, or a man standing behind the altar in a black hood.
Charlie died in Los Angeles, on a Tuesday night in June. I was in Boston and I didn’t know; we hadn’t spoken for over a year. People talk about a cold wind, or a pain in the chest, but I didn’t feel anything like that. On Wednesday at about noon, my phone rang. Or rather, I happened to be looking through my bag for my wallet, and I saw that the screen was illuminated: “Charlie.” I grabbed the phone and answered before I could think any of the obvious things, such as why pick up right away or it’s been more than a year or what are you to her anymore?
I heard a shuffling, something lightweight falling to the floor. Empty boxes, maybe.
I said her name again, and then I lost the call. I called her back, but no one picked up. I felt foolish and unaccountably disappointed. I vowed that if she tried again, I wouldn’t pick up. I would wait a few days before deciding whether I even wanted to call her back.
I became Frederick B. Blumhagen Professor of Theoretical Physics at MIT in 2004, just after I turned thirty-three. This was the year after Neel Jonnal and I published our AdS/CFT model for quark gluon plasma as a dual black hole in curved five-dimensional spacetime. I was subsequently invited to every physics conference and festival from Aspen to Tokyo to Switzerland, and accepted as many as I could get away with, at least of those that didn’t ask me to speak on the subject of Women in Science.
Five years after Neel and I gave birth to our eponymous model, the Clapp-Jonnal, I gave birth to Jack. I’m what is called a single mother “by choice,” which means that I decided to give up on the fantasy that a man with the intelligence and ambition required to interest me in the long term would arrive at the perfect reproductive moment, and be willing to give up a certain measure of professional success to contribute to the manual labor involved in raising a child. (Charlie’s solution—finding a man who seemed to have no ambition other than to be with her and raise the child—struck me as workable, if you could be attracted to a person like that.)
Before Jack was born, I published two books for a general audience on topics related to my research: the first a collection of essays on quantum cosmology, and the second, more successfully, on black holes. Both books were published internationally, and Into the Singularity even spent a brief moment on several best-seller lists. It sometimes amuses me that the people who seem to envy the small amount of name recognition I’ve accrued—because I have the ability and the inclination to put what we do into words the nonscientist can understand—are the same people who dismiss that work for its lack of seriousness. I would much rather talk to laypeople who read the books and get excited about primordial black holes or the potential of the Large Hadron Collider than to Vincenzo Goia down the hall, and so I tended to do a fair amount of speaking about the books, at least before Jack was born. I am, as people are always noting, extremely busy. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I didn’t need Charlie.
I didn’t need her, but when I got a call the next morning from an L.A. landline, all my resolutions melted away and I picked it up immediately. I believed it was my old friend finally calling me back.
“Helen?” It was Charlie’s husband, Terrence.
“Oh—hi! Charlie called yesterday, but it was a really bad connection, and I tried her back, but—”
I’m ashamed to say that I laughed. I’m told that this isn’t an uncommon reaction.
“It happened late Tuesday night.”
Tuesday, I thought, Tuesday, and was relieved to discover that it was impossible. This was Thursday, and Charlie had called me yesterday.
“We knew it was coming. But this was how she wanted it—no drama.”
The idea that Charlie would want to do anything—least of all dying—without drama was ludicrous, as was this sudden phone call in the middle of the morning. It was eleven o’clock and I was in my office, peer reviewing an article for Physical Review Letters on ultrahigh-energy debris from collisional Penrose processes. I thought of how Charlie used to laugh at the titles of my papers. I always said it was just a matter of getting past the unfamiliar language. If she could read Shakespeare, she could read physics. This particular paper suggested that subatomic particles orbiting near a spinning black hole might collide more forcefully than previous calculations showed, possibly even powering ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays.
“What do you mean?”
I knew Charlie was ill. Charlie had lupus. They had diagnosed it eight years ago, just after her daughter was born, when her suppressed immune system allowed the previously dormant disease to flare. But even before that, for as long as I’d known her, Charlie had believed something was wrong with her. The diagnosis, when she described it, wasn’t a tragedy. It was a relief to know what it was, and to be able to get treated. She’d been waiting her whole life to find out. There was no question of dying.
“I got a call from her phone yesterday,” I told him.
There was a pause.
“What time?” Terrence asked, and for a moment I thought there was a note of hope in his voice. As if it might be possible for me to convince him.
“At about noon.”
“Because her phone is missing,” Terrence said. “There’ve been a lot of people in and out—the health care aides especially. The coroner and the men from the funeral parlor. And then a few different sitters for Simmi, and our housekeeper—but she’s absolutely trustworthy.” Terrence sounded fierce, as if I had accused the housekeeper. He took a breath and continued. “We sleep—we’ve been sleeping—together, and Simmi fell asleep next to her mother on Tuesday as usual. I moved her to her own room, and I think she knew when she woke up. I was sitting there, and she didn’t cry when I told her. We had breakfast. She didn’t ask about the body. It was only when I started looking for the phone, and couldn’t find it, that she went crazy.”
“Terrence,” I said. “I can’t—”
I was the maid of honor in their wedding ten years ago, on the beach in Malibu. I thought then that Charlie’s parents, an art dealer and a psychiatrist who still lived in the Georgian house in Brookline, where Charlie grew up, felt the same way I did about Terrence. Still, they didn’t show that they were disappointed to find their daughter marrying a surfer whose brother had served a three-year sentence for possession with intent to distribute, whose mother smoked menthols behind the catering truck before and after the ceremony, whose father was nowhere to be seen.
The couple was blindingly attractive. Terrence had his Irish mother’s green eyes and his black father’s hair, twisted into short, beach-friendly locks. Charlie had her mother’s incomparable bone structure. There was a lot of talk about how beautiful the children would be. There was no talk about Charlie’s disease, because at that time no one knew she had it.
“I didn’t cancel her phone service until this morning,” Terrence said. “We wanted to trace the phone, but she never set that up. She said she’d do it. It takes, like, three minutes.”
Terrence hesitated, and other noise took over. In my office there was the whir of dry heat being forced through the empty ducts. On Terrence’s end, the hysterical rise and fall of children’s television.
“There’s something I need—from her email. They make it almost impossible to get into email on the computer, if you don’t know the password. But the passcode on the phone is 1234. I once showed her an article about how it’s everyone’s first guess—but she never changed it. Maybe she figured she didn’t need to email it to me, since I could always get in on the phone.”
I was having trouble following Terrence, but I didn’t want to ask him to repeat himself. What was it he needed? At first I thought of a will, but the only copy of a will wouldn’t be locked in a deceased person’s email account.
“I might have to hire an actual lawyer.”
“Yeah, so . . . whoever has the phone—they must’ve pocket dialed you.”
“That makes sense.” I said this to be kind to Terrence. I didn’t believe it. What were the odds of being called accidentally by a thief who stole a phone, even if the passcode were easy to guess? You didn’t keep a stolen phone and start using it. You wiped it clean and sold it right away.
Terrence coughed. “Charlie wanted me to—reach out to you. She didn’t want me to get into the medical details with everyone, but since you understand this stuff—it was the encephalitis that did it. She was doing chemo.”
“Chemo’s not just for cancer.”
“I know that.”
“Yeah, so, we stopped that three weeks before—we decided to stop it, because it wasn’t helping. She was worried about her hair.”
“She would have looked fine without hair.”
“She didn’t lose any.”
“That probably made her happy.”
“I think it was her chief concern.” Terrence let out a sound between a sigh and a choke, and I was sorry I’d ever thought badly of him.
“Terrence, I don’t—is there anything I can do? I know it must be . . . with Simmi and everything.”
I hadn’t seen Simmi since she was a baby, but I thought that if she were anything like her mother, she would survive. In fact, that was the piece of it that made the least sense, because the central fact about Charlie was her resilience. It wasn’t so much that Charlie couldn’t die, but that the Charlie who was dead couldn’t be Charlie anymore.
“She’s lucky to have you, though.” I didn’t mean to relate it to me and Jack, or to suggest that just because Simmi had two parents, it was okay that she had lost one of them. But I’m still afraid Terrence might have taken it that way.
“Me?” He sounded incredulous. “I’m no substitute.”
“No, of course, but—”
“She’s just waiting for her mother to come back. Now I think that’s why she didn’t ask about the body. If she saw a body—”
There was a pause in which I heard the television again. It was so loud. Had he put it on to distract his daughter while he called their friends? Or had she turned it up herself, to drown him out?
“There’s going to be a memorial in Boston next month,” he said. “Her parents will let you know.”
I asked if there were anything I could do to help, and Terrence politely declined—naturally, he was eager to get off the phone.
“People are posting on her wall,” he said.
“You can memorialize her fucking Facebook. But you can’t get what you actually need.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.” And hung up.
I went to the missed calls from yesterday: one incoming, followed by two outgoing in quick succession. I touched the number and the screen obligingly responded: “Calling: Charlie . . .”
But it was as Terrence had said. The mobile customer I was trying to reach was no longer at this number.