Books

Rescuing a Tired Genre

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You can't just write a novel about the family of a missing teenager anymore; Oprah Winfrey and Lifetime Movies of the Week have dotted the genre with thousands of clichés. It's a landscape fraught with peril, and a lazy or stupid writer could easily destroy a story by charging blindly forward. Miriam Gershow's The Local News, about a teenager named Lydia Pasternak whose brother Danny disappears, manages to avoid all these clichés and make it look easy.

Part of Lydia's charm is that she's not an angelic victim or a heroic martyr: For the most part, she's completely insufferable, staggering blindly through her grief, making great strides toward acceptance for a while and then getting drunk at a party and tearing her world to pieces all over again. You've got to love someone who manages to completely miss the point of an inspirational poster in her psychiatrist's office:

"A single poster hung in the office... it was a reproduction of a Hockney-like painting, a front door of a house, opening onto a sudden, serene ocean instead of a front lawn. I'm sure it was meant to be soothing—an ocean of opportunities awaits you just outside your front door—but it struck me more as a warning: Take one wrong step and you're sunk."

Just because Lydia is selfish and wounded doesn't mean she's completely unlikeable. She's got a marvelously wry, dry sense of humor, as when she takes on the job of tending all the letters from crazy people that come to her family—"one promised that all the clues to Danny's whereabouts could be found in the movie Seven and implored us to pay careful attention to GLUTTONY and VANITY and Kevin SPACEY"—and occasionally mocks fellow high school students who mangle efforts to console her. The Local News isn't flawless: Some bad metaphors pop up occasionally, including an especially wearing comparison of a teenage party to chaos theory that wouldn't have felt fresh even a decade ago. But compared to the other recent novels in the teen-abduction genre, especially the cloying melodrama of the recent bestselling titan of the field, The Lovely Bones, it feels like a revelation.

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