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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy

Dutton Adult, 352 pages, $26.95

Lori Roy’s first novel was Bent Road, and it won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Until She Comes Home, her second novel, is a finalist for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel. That’s a pretty good way to start a writing career.

Until She Comes Home is set in Detroit during the summer of 1957. Malina Herze, Julia Wagner, and Grace Richardson are housewives on Alder Avenue, in a working class neighborhood. Malina is the queen bee. Julia has lost a baby to SIDS and is taking care of her twin nieces for the summer. Grace is pregnant with her first child.

Elizabeth Symanski is a mentally handicapped young woman on this street. Grace especially keeps a watch over Elizabeth as she wanders the neighborhood. Her father is old, and since his wife died, it has been hard for him to take care of Elizabeth properly. One day, after visiting with Grace, Elizabeth disappears. Julia, who was also visiting Grace, was supposed to have kept her eye on Elizabeth until she walked into her home, but afterwards Julia can’t remember whether she did or not.

The men of the neighborhood organize to search for Elizabeth. Malina organizes the women to cook for the searchers. As the days drag on without any results, tensions within the families on Alder Avenue rise, along with the summer heat. Each family seems to have a secret, then a cause to suspect the worst of themselves and the other families. Lori Roy drops the clues and builds the suspense very slowly. Even the few action scenes have a torpor to them.

Alder Avenue lives and breathes and then withers and compresses as the story goes on. It is as much a character as the people who live there. The story is also infused with the looming problem of race relations. Alder Avenue has a few African American people living on it, and black workers walk the back alley. The story begins with Malina’s obsession with a black woman she thinks her husband visits. The shops the housewives visit serve both black and white. But there is no race keg that is ignited here. Roy’s tale simmers with the racism that in later years exploded in Detroit and other big cities.

What is striking is how Roy brings her readers into the three very different households like spectators to a play. The set revolves from house to house, the inhabitants entering and exiting with increasing intensity and madness. Lights go on along the block when Elizabeth disappears to guide her home again. The back alley holds its own dramatic comings and goings. The stage is set and the players make their way through their various tragedies.

It’s easy to see why this book was nominated.

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