Recommended by Dinah Lenney
Suzanne Berne’s father was six years old when his mother died, less than two weeks before Christmas day in 1932. “We were told she was gone,” Berne remembers him repeating to her and her siblings. “No one ever said where.”
In Missing Lucile, Berne, an award-winning novelist, sets out to find her grandmother and to bring her to life, mostly for her father’s sake, though she admits that his sense of loss disturbed her even and especially in childhood. “Logically enough I wished I could give his mother back to him,” she writes in her preface. “A wish I suppose I’ve held ever since I was old enough to wish for anything not directly involving myself, though of course self-interest was always involved.”
At the start, she explains, she had very little to go on: “Snips of historical DNA. Some photographs.A letter.A fruitcake tin embossed with cupids which holds a minute helix of allusions to a long-dead woman who contributed one-quarter of my genetic makeup, along with possible freaks of temperament.” But who better to contextualize the mysteries of the past than a fiction writer of Berne’s fluency and skill? So it is, thanks to memory, research, and a supple imagination, that Lucile—daughter, sister, wife, and mother—emerges. She is an American girl—self-assured and intrepid; a down-to-earth heiress; the first in her family to attend college; a discreet young woman with a head for numbers and a secret or two never fully revealed. But as Berne points out—comparing her assemblage to a crossword puzzle—“Every life has its blank squares.”
If the author were only a beautiful writer—if she had only managed to resurrect Lucile as dimensional and pulsing—her book would have been a success. But it’s the integrity of her intention—to get to the truth—that informs and enriches her already worthy accomplishment. “In my opinion,” Berne says, “writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado, a willingness to chat up the unknowable… telling the truth often means confessing that you don’t have it.” Thus, she muses, conjectures, vividly conjures scenes and relationships. Then, lest she or we get too comfortable, she reminds us, I’m making this up; almost apologizes for telling the story as well as she knows how, an equivocation that only adds to her persuasiveness.
The B-plot—catalyst and consequence, as well as the current that runs alongside the events of the previous century—is the present-time renascence of the author’s relationship with her father. “The past is radiant,” wrote memoirist Patricia Hampl in her essay Memory and Imagination. “It sheds the light of lived life.”As is appropriate, then, this author is looking for some sort of illumination. “What did I hope to find by finding my father’s mother?” she asks. Toward the end, having worked to fill the ‘blank square’ at the center of her father’s life and so to ease his grief, she comes up with an answer. She, too, has reclaimed a parent who had long eluded her.
Anybody who parses Missing Lucile as straightforward biography or memoir misses the point and the pleasure of the read. In a voice that is wry, self-deprecating, full of insight and humor, Suzanne Berne acquaints us not just with the history of a family, a community, and an era, but with the workings of her singular intelligence. Missing Lucile is, as much as anything, a satisfying and generously nuanced meditation on the rewards and challenges of the memoir genre, and the craft of writing itself.