Lost and Wanted (Freudenberger)

Lost and Wanted 
Nell Freudenberger, 2019
Knopf Doubleday
336 pp.

An emotionally engaging, suspenseful new novel, told in the voice of a renowned physicist: an exploration of female friendship, romantic love, and parenthood--bonds that show their power in surprising ways.

Helen Clapp's breakthrough work on five-dimensional spacetime landed her a tenured professorship at MIT; her popular books explain physics in plain terms.

Helen disdains notions of the supernatural in favor of rational thought and proven ideas. So it's perhaps especially vexing for her when, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday in June, she gets a phone call from a friend who has just died.

That friend was Charlotte Boyce, Helen's roommate at Harvard. The two women had once confided in each other about everything--in college, the unwanted advances Charlie received from a star literature professor; after graduation, Helen's struggles as a young woman in science, Charlie's as a black screenwriter in Hollywood, their shared challenges as parents.

But as the years passed, Charlie became more elusive, and her calls came less and less often. And now she's permanently, tragically gone.

As Helen is drawn back into Charlie's orbit, and also into the web of feelings she once had for Neel Jonnal—a former college classmate now an acclaimed physicist on the verge of a Nobel Prizewinning discovery—she is forced to question the laws of the universe that had always steadied her mind and heart.

Suspenseful, perceptive, deeply affecting, Lost and Wanted is a story of friends and lovers, lost and found, at the most defining moments of their lives. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—April 21, 1975
Where—New York City, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Harvard Univeristy
Awards—PEN/Malamud Award; Whiting Writer's Award; Guggenheim Fellowship
Currently—lives in New York City (Brooklyn)

Nell Freudenberger is the author of three novels—Lost and Wanted (2019), The Newlyweds (2012), and The Dissident (2006). Her 2003 story collection, Lucky Girls, was winner of the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.” She lives in Brooklyn with her family. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Beautiful, startling, affecting.… Freudenberger joins [an] august tradition of yoking poetry to cutting-edge science. She navigates complicated concepts from physics with admirable clarity. This is a novel about female friendship begun in America in the 1990s, when women didn’t talk about sexual harassment and friends didn’t talk about race; when women (and especially women of color) were trying to build careers and no one was acknowledging how much harder it would be for them than for white men. Under such strain, the book seems to say, it’s incredible that women sustain any friendships at all. And yet in this novel, even the distance between Charlie and Helen is moving: the space that opens between them reverberates with what might have been. I was moved by intimacies near and far, real and imagined, lost and found..
Louisa Hall - New York Times Book Review

Dazzling, ingenious… a gorgeous literary novel about loss and human limitations. Over the months that follow her friend Charlie’s death Helen, a distinguished professor of physics at MIT, grapples with grief, midlife regrets and the disruptive possibility of life after death. Freudenberger dramatizes, through Helen, both the dawning awareness that life doesn’t always allow for second chances and the great midlife consolation prize: a greater appreciation for those chances—and people—one has been given. Helen’s thoughts meander from a wry social observation to a digression on physics to a heart-rending epiphany [and] the novel ends with its own version of a "big bang." Freudenberger has a penetrating imagination.
Maureen Corrigan - Washington Post

Insightful… a search for a ripple in space-time becomes a symbol of how lives are changed by forces we cannot see. Freudenberger relates the momentous  discovery by physicists of a gravitational wave. What other wonders might we be missing simply because, for the moment, we lack the instruments to detect them? The phenomenon that troubles Lost and Wanted is life after death—an age-old concern viewed here [through] the narrator, an MIT physicist. This novel is smart about the ways that parents try to explain mortality to children—kids are usually patronized in works of fiction, but in this book they’re on equal footing with the adults, who have no clearer understanding of what awaits us after death than they do.
Wall Street Journal

Absorbing, intelligent, touching… a bittersweet love story about a lost friend, a missed romance, and an all-consuming career. Freudenberger deploys physics as a catalyst for new perspectives on time and our trajectories through it, rather than just metaphorical ballast. She balances the science with tender, convincing portraits of two kids. Enriched by multi-level discussions about the spacetime continuum, whether Einstein believed in God, uncertainty, gravity, and, most notably, the force we exert on each other, Lost and Wanted is a moving story about down-to-earth issues: an outstanding achievement.

What do physics and grief have in common? How can a scientist reckon with the inexplicable, for instance, the appearance of a ghost? These are but two of the big questions that power this intellectually rich and soulfully deep novel by one of our most talented fiction writers.
Oprah Magazine

What happens to our souls when we die? Does our consciousness leave a trace on earth? Freudenberger explores the complicated nature of friendship—especially the relationships that we form in youth, as we are trying to discover ourselves—and delves into the existential questions that plague physicists and laypeople alike.… Lost and Wanted is prescient [in] connecting scientific and metaphysical faith in things that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Freudenberger’s novel is set in a Boston that calls to mind Henry James country, a bastion of correctness and rational thought. It is all the more jarring, then, when Helen Clapp, a single mother and tenured chair in MIT’s physics department, receives a phone call and then text messages from the afterlife. Helen doesn’t write off the transmissions as a hoax—she sits tight and collects data, all the while conducting a meticulous reexamination of her long and bewildering relationship with her estranged best friend, Charlie, who moved to Hollywood after college and died from an autoimmune disease. The book takes up weighty themes such as grief and sexism in the worlds of academia and entertainment, peppering the narration with evocative asides on black holes and quantum entanglement.… The prose is enticing [on] friendship, that most unstable and mysterious of connections.

An affecting female friendship tale—Charlie, glamorous and alluring, and Helen, cerebral and self-assured—that takes a turn for the otherworldly.
Entertainment Weekly

A truly lovely story about friendship.

(Starred review) Freudenberger explores the convergence of scientific rationality and spirituality in this stunning portrayal of grief.… Helen’s journey… is about grief not only at the loss of her friend but also at the demise of countless possible futures. This is a beautiful and moving novel.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) [M]agnificent… a warm and insightful look into human relationships and the mysteries of time. Refreshingly, the… [scientific] concepts that Freudenberger describes are integral to the plot. And the story takes unexpected turns on its way to a heartbreaking conclusion.

(Starred review) Compelling, seductively poetic; deeply involving, suspenseful and psychologically lush.… Freudenberger is spellbinding in her imaginative use of particle physics as a mirror of human entanglement and uncertainty.

(Starred review) Brimming with wit and intelligence and devoted to things that matter: life, love, death, and the mysteries of the cosmos. Nell Freudenberger is good at explaining physics, but her real genius is in the depiction of relationships.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. What was your impression of Helen at the beginning of the novel as compared to the end? Even with her rare intellectual abilities, and her scientific ways of thinking, does she discover new things to learn, and new parts of herself, in response to Charlie’s death?

2. What do you think brought Charlie and Helen together as friends in the first place? How did they learn to speak the same language, despite their different interests and backgrounds? And does this change, when Charlie passes away?

3. Describe the process by which Helen chose Jack’s father. Were you surprised by her preferences in the sperm donor, and what she values in Jack based on his father’s traits (including how different some of them are from her own)?

4. When Helen and Neel create the Clapp-Jonnal model at Harvard, she describes feeling…

the way people describe falling in love but it was so much better than the reality of that. The model gave me a kind of happiness that didn’t depend upon anyone else; it could be carried with you. I thought that this was what religious faith must be like, the peace in knowing that there was something beyond the world you knew, and that your own inner experience would indeed endure (42).

    How does this reflect Helen’s own understanding of the limits of human knowledge?

5. Each of the three main characters—Helen, Charlie, and Neel—have their own feelings of not fitting in somehow. How does being different from others people bring these people toward one another? Consider also what Helen says about how, unlike herself, her friends weren’t "finding that their own ideas shifted under the influence of powerful fields created by two equally magnetic friends" (63–64). What does this suggest about Helen’s confidence in her own powers of attraction and influence on others?

6. Charlie comes from an affluent black family, with highly-educated parents, in Boston; Helen grew up in a middle-class white family in Los Angeles. Each of them ends up settling in the opposite city, on opposite coasts. How have both women sought to move away from their upbringings in adulthood? How do their family backgrounds—and the colors of their skin—continue to influence their lives they live?

7. What was your initial reaction to the messages Helen receives from Charlie’s phone? If you were Helen, how would you react? Do you think that her response to Simmi’s confession reflects relief or disappointment? And what was your own response to the story’s answer to that mystery?

8. Compare the children’s understanding of death and higher powers with that of the adults in the novel. Which kind of faith proves more accurate, and how might you see the children’s perspective influencing the adults’—and vice versa?

9. Charlie characterizes lupus as a disease that "basically rewires your neural pathways, so that your brain is getting messages that your body hurts when it really shouldn't doesn’t" (169). How is this reflected in what happens leading up to and after her death?

10. Many in  her circle were alarmed and upset by Charlie’s decision to end her own life, especially her parents. Discuss the echoes of this decision on her family and her circle overall. Do you think she did the right thing?

11. There are many different kinds of love in the novel. Where are the lines drawn among certain kinds of love—romantic, platonic, unconditional—and when, if ever, does love become dangerous? Helen and Neel vacillate between romantic attraction and another kind of force-field. Discuss what happens to each of them at the end of the novel and whether it seems satisfying to them both to remain friends with a history. What do you think is surprising, if anything, about the fact that both Neel and Terrence are attractive to Helen?

12. Charlie’s experience with Pope radically changes the course of her time at Harvard, her career, and her friendship with Helen. How would someone in her situation react in today’s environment, perhaps especially on a highly-charged college campus? What did you think about the way Helen, years later, gets involved?

13. Neel comes back to Boston as part of the LIGO team, which is well on its way to making a huge discovery. How does the LIGO research on gravitational waves impact Neel and Helen’s careers—and also their relationship? Consider Helen’s comment that she is "betting on the idea that LIGO would record not only the gravitational waves from colliding black holes, but from pairs of neutron stars, exploding in what is called a kilonova" (115). Do you think that Helen and Neel’s professional rivalry is healthy or even productive?

14. At the end of the novel, after Terrence and Simmi leave the Boston area and the LIGO scientists win the Nobel Prize, Helen reflects that "to understand more of our cosmology, we’re going to have to admit that there may be laws so different from the ones we know, so seemingly counterintuitive, that it will take all our imagination to uncover them" (3157). Is there anything that Helen does know more definitively, after all she experienced? Have her own expectations of her life’s work, as a scientist, mother, and friend, changed?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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