"How Quickly She Disappears" by Raymond Fleischmann; Berkley (309 pages, $26)
Something ominous happens in the opening pages of "How Quickly She Disappears" and it's not immediately clear whether it's the good kind of ominous.
Here's the sitch: An unhappily married woman senses her small-town life is about to be turned upside-down by the unexpected arrival of a handsome, older drifter whose looks are compared to a falcon. If every single detail in that sentence sends you into "Bridges of Madison County" Post-Terrible Writing Stress Disorder, I apologize, but don't shoot the messenger.
Fortunately, it's quickly apparent that Raymond Fleischmann, who wrote this tense, character-rich thriller, is a better writer than Robert James Waller and that "How Quickly She Disappears" is after something much different from what "Bridges" was. Instead of embarking on an affair with mysterious Alfred, Elisabeth enters into a "Silence of the Lambs"-style exchange with him after he kills a man and, from prison, makes unsettling overtures to her and her 12-year-old daughter, Margaret.
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That's the good kind of ominous, and Fleischmann sustains it throughout "How Quickly She Disappears." We don't know exactly what Alfred wants from Elisabeth when he summons her to prison but we do know what she wants from him: Her twin disappeared when the sisters were adolescents and has not been heard from since. Alfred, it turns out, knows what happened but will only gradually reveal the details.
Smart, vulnerable and too quick to make life-alteringly bad decisions, Elisabeth is a fascinating character (the book is a natural for a movie adaptation, and Natalie Portman would be an excellent Elisabeth). We spend most of "How Quickly She Disappears" in her head, either as a child in the 1920s or a lonely adult in the 1940s. Fleischmann is particularly good at depicting the uncertainties of being both a parent and an outsider in an isolated town that closes ranks against newcomers. For extra isolation, this one's in Alaska.
Elisabeth uses a meditation technique, learned in childhood, to deal with all of her uncertainties. Her doubts deepen her character while Fleischmann's melodious prose gives us the lay of the land: "She heard the stiff, rhythmic beat of someone cutting wood. Then she heard the suck and sigh of her own breathing, the faint tick of Delma's claws as she traipsed through the living room. Listen. Someone laughed in the distance. Listen. A group of children hurried down the road, whooping as they played hoop and stick. Listen. Just listen. She closed her eyes. She tried to relax."
That lyrical passage is atypical of the propulsive "How Quickly She Disappears," which rarely pauses to reflect. But it's representative of how deeply we connect to the protagonist of Fleischmann's assured page-turner, in which every plot development hinges on grieving Elisabeth's yearning for a truth that has eluded her for almost all of her life.
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