Particle Physics: On Nell Freudenberger’s “Lost and Wanted”

July 3, 2019   •   By Dehn Gilmore

Lost and Wanted

Nell Freudenberger

AT THE START of her intelligent and moving new novel, Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger sets her plot into motion by having her protagonist, Helen, receive a call from her friend Charlie. The strange thing is — and there’s no way to describe the setup without it sounding like the twist ending of a mediocre summer camp ghost story — Charlie’s dead. Her passing is very recent; her phone is missing; and the reader confronts a mystery. Is the caller a thief? A ghost? Someone from another dimension?

Nothing in Freudenberger’s carefully grounded realism, with its meticulous plotting of the geographical and material details of contemporary Cambridge, mid-1990s Harvard, and early aughts Los Angeles, would suggest either of the latter two options. Yet Helen is an MIT professor for whom time has “a flexibility that transcends the ordinary experience of it,” a particle physicist who thinks constantly about ripples in time and space: as she says (before she clarifies that she’s a rational skeptic), “In my line of work, I do get asked about the paranormal.” The novel’s opening gambit asks us to think about our own relation to it also.

The real interests of the book, however, have less to do with the paranormal or with the fantastic and more to do with the intersections between science, memory, friendship, and mourning — the kind of complex and sustained mourning that takes many turns and finds those who experience it seeing the world always through its lens. Helen is a “work-study white science nerd from Pasadena,” and Charlie is a charismatic and beautiful “upper middle class black girl from Brookline.” They met in college, and through a progression of Helen’s memories, Freudenberger shows their intense and vividly imagined friendship kindle and develop. Illness, romance, geography, career pressures, misogyny, and children all subsequently come along to domesticate and somewhat dampen the relationship (as they will), but these forces cannot snuff it out, and Charlie’s death from complications of lupus finds Helen shocked and then devastated in slow motion. It also finds her drawn more and more into the lives of Charlie’s restless husband, Terrence, and their spirited daughter, Simmi — as well as increasingly drawn back through her past with Charlie. When not sifting through history or bumping up against Charlie’s grieving family, Helen reflects on the daily business of being a single parent (by choice) to her son, Jack. She also situates us in the science of her moment. It is 2016, and Freudenberger has chosen the time of present-day action carefully: scientists at Caltech’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) are on the verge of detecting the gravitational waves or “ripples in spacetime” that Einstein first proposed in 1915, and that had gone unproven in the intervening century. Suspense is in the air.

For Freudenberger, these waves are irresistible as a metaphor for the power of unseen forces to shape reality, the ability of past phenomena to affect the present, and such physics metaphors pervade the book. Freudenberger relies on them heavily as she shapes Helen’s perspective and introduces a variety of well-limned analogies and mini-lessons. Were the supernatural to exist, Helen speculates, its relationship to the knowable world might be “severely limited, just as all interactions between classical and quantum systems are limited.” Her longing to see her son at the end of the day is like gravity: it “exert[s] a kind of force on me, impossible to ignore.” Or, in one of the more developed metaphors, “pair[s] of particles” can have “a shared history that cause [them] even once they’ve been permanently separated, to behave as if they knew what each other was thinking”; they are in this way, we must understand, not unlike once close, now less close friends.

I’m not sure all of the metaphors are sufficient to make for an entirely convincing account of how a scientist sees the world, though I find Helen completely credible as a sometimes overly analytical and self-conscious academic. Toward the beginning of the book, she recalls a recurrent argument with Charlie over the obscurity of science, in which she always took the position that “it was just a matter of getting past the unfamiliar language. If she could read Shakespeare she could read physics.” The implication of this memory is clearly that Helen (and Freudenberger) is working a constant act of translation for the reader. Yet as an English professor who predominantly teaches physicists and engineers, I can attest that there is more to a scientific worldview than understanding scientific concepts or in being able to frame them poetically (which Freudenberger surely does). There is also more to such a worldview than being steeped in the history of science, though Helen’s riffs on such subjects as whether Newton “belongs in the supernatural past of the Sumerians and Babylonians, or as a shock trooper in the Age of Reason” are entertaining. For me, Freudenberger is more credible in her portrait of a scientific outlook in her imagination of Helen’s friend and former lover Neel — or at least I think his brand of bringing together philosophy and science works better.

Nonetheless, I give Freudenberger substantial credit for trying on a scientist’s view, and indeed, for making science such a significant part of the novel. Leaving aside Richard Powers, Ian McEwan, and Allegra Goodman, the ranks of “literary” fiction writers interested in thinking thematically about science, or engaging with the intellectual content of scientific ideas, or even showing scientists at work, are thin, and despite some notable recent forays including Weike Wang’s Chemistry or Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand (in which the science is somehow both central and incidental), there are few signs that novelists vested in realism are responding to our science-driven century with particular inspiration or enthusiasm.

Part of the problem may inhere in the fact that much of science is slow work, and work is, as Elaine Scarry has pointed out, difficult for the novel to represent. Part of the issue may lie in how easy it is for scientific exposition or jargon to bog down a narrative or to run away with it. (The authors I have just cited are certainly not immune from this charge — McEwan’s latest, Machines Like Me, is a case in point.) Alternatively, part of the problem may lie in how little exposure to higher science most people receive, and so, how inept many people feel when called on to describe or explain it. (The “Two Cultures” problem is still alive and well 60 years after C. P. Snow’s eponymous essay on it.) However, in a climate where even the female scientist who helps to capture the first image of a black hole can be bullied online and terrorized for daring to be a scientist, where even she can be called out as a fake, it is easy enough to understand some trepidation around claiming to speak for science, or to speak with authority about scientific ideas — especially as a female author. Freudenberger herself recognizes some of the preconditions of this culture, and one of the more convincing and compelling parts of her portrait of Helen as a scientist is her consistent awareness of lab and field gender dynamics, whether they manifest in fights over the lab thermostat or in the resonance for young female scientists of hearing senior female scientists speak.

Of course, those who have read her past work might not be surprised that Freudenberger is undaunted at the prospect of imagining her way into territory for which her own biography would not seem to fit her. Indeed, her newest book invites a consideration of her career’s bold trajectory, and not only when it comes to Freudenberger’s more recent investment in science. Lost and Wanted continues a longstanding interest on her part in exploring what racial or ethnic identity “means and doesn’t mean” to her characters, and it continues an interest in exploring what these meanings (or unmeanings) are for both white and nonwhite characters. Helen ruminates not only on her relationship with Charlie but also on what Charlie’s perspective about it might have been. She imagines and revisits the pressures that Charlie would have been under as a wildly-talented black woman from a very high achieving family, and she also anticipates those that Terrence would be under as a biracial man from a less august background (some questionably pat psychologizing here). There is a daring in this effort to articulate and vivify such experiences that Freudenberger clearly feels herself, for she rather curiously cites Paul Beatty, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tracy K. Smith, and Colson Whitehead, among others, in her acknowledgments as sources for her reckoning with race.

Yet the perspective throughout Lost and Wanted is always Helen’s, and in this way the novel seems to have evolved in a new direction away from its predecessors. Indeed, there’s an interesting thought experiment in wondering what would have happened if Freudenberger had published her first two novels, The Dissident (2006) and The Newlyweds (2012), after more recent debates about how literally writers should feel bound to “write what you know.” For, in The Dissident, her answer to how she would follow up her rhapsodically covered, award-winning debut short story collection, Lucky Girls (2003), she imagined her way into the head of a dissident Chinese artist making his way through the bizarreries of the contemporary American art world — and the perhaps even stranger mores of the Los Angles private school scene. She inhabited a set of upper-middle-class white characters, but the assumption of a voice belonging to a Chinese performance artist deeply affected by political violence and as deeply obsessed with silk art, might define chutzpah or hubris, depending on your take. Then, in The Newlyweds, her ventriloquism was to go even further, and she adopted the history and perspective of a real-life woman she met on a plane to imagine her protagonist, Amina Mazid, a Bangladeshi woman brought to the United States by internet romance and tested in her hopes and ambitions by the myriad pressures of cross-cultural exchange. These characterizations could be construed as boldly heroic efforts at empathy, or their various forms of cultural appropriation might fairly be read as tricky. These are novels that admirably call out a host of problematic white American attitudes toward “the Other,” toward the “exotic,” toward the “foreign,” but they are also novels that could plausibly be accused of recapitulating exactly what they critique. Flickerings of debates about these issues played out when Freudenberger’s earlier works were published, and it is easy to imagine a very different kind of firefight now.

Yet Lost and Wanted is thoughtful about where intersectionality is possible and where it stops, and it is thoughtful too about ways in which conversations around race (and gender and sexuality) have changed in the last 20 years. Indeed, observes Helen (aptly):

Maybe today black girls and brown girls and white girls, lesbians and bisexual and trans people sit in their dorm rooms talking about privilege and adjacency and intersectionality. It’s just that it wasn’t like that then. Talking about it would have violated every unspoken rule of our friendship.

That gap between the then and the now occasions a series of other interesting reflections on the status of racial discourse and activism. The same gap also occasions interesting reflections on many other subjects beyond science and race, and while many of them are less abstract and more daily, they are perhaps the more gripping and resonant for so being.

This novel is wonderful, without any condescension, on the energy, intellectual affectation, genuine intellectual curiosity, and exaggerated feeling of youth, whether in its portrait of Charlie’s intellectual trajectory at college — French intellectual theory to black American feminists to popular culture — or in its stop-and-go account of Helen and Neel’s slow-moving college relationship. It is astute on the exhausting mental wages both of chronic illness and of being a new parent — Helen recalls, for example, her first post-baby conference and the tension between her desire to “prove to myself that things wouldn’t be so different” and the reality of traveling cross-country with a three-month-old, let alone juggling presenting with pumping. The novel is good, too, on the alternating joy, frustration, hilarity, and boredom of parenting.

More than anything though, Freudenberger is excellent in her account of female friendships: the intensity with which they form in youth, the pressures that external circumstances put on them, and then the reshaping they undergo in middle age, and especially with the introduction of children. “As our children grew up,” Helen writes (devastatingly), “Charlie and I fell more and more out of touch. The less I communicated with her, the more I looked at Facebook and eventually at Instagram.” Freudenberger imagines an intensity around female friendship that approaches or replaces romantic investment without requiring that this intensity be described as “ferocious” or “violent” or “savage” or “raging” — or any of the other adjectives that Elena Ferrante’s fiction magnetically attracts (Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends springs to mind as having a similar quality). Freudenberger perceives that misunderstandings and careers and health crises and partners and children can interrupt such intensity — and indeed, friendship itself — but that this interruption is not inherently a betrayal or a tragedy, only a kind of loss and one that may even come with recuperations. In fact, some of the most moving scenes in Lost and Wanted are comparatively quiet scenes in which Helen and Charlie meet or re-meet each other’s children over the years and the two women express their approval, their observations, and their joy for one another. “I was filled with the same kind of anticipation I’d had when my parents came to see Jack and me in the hospital,” recalls Helen, without any hyperbole, in thinking of Charlie’s first meeting with Jack. Charlie’s feeling of the moment is the same; she gives him an elaborate toy because she knows her time with him will be brief: “I wanted him to like me right away.”

It is very hard not to like this ambitious, thoughtful, and philosophical novel right away, and very hard not to be moved by its portrait of grief and of what endures.


Dehn Gilmore is a professor of English at Caltech, where she works on the intersections between the Victorian novel and visual culture.