What Could Be Saved by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz
Published by Atria Books
Publication date: January 12, 2021
Genres: Cultural, Fiction
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The word “normal” ceases to exist in families who lose a child. Either they re-form together into a new unit or they separate. After 8-year-old Philip disappears in What Could Be Saved, the Preston family is the latter. They shatter, with the four remaining members—father, Robert; mother, Genevieve; daughters, Beatrice, and Laura, leaving Thailand to return home to the U.S. Now, 40 years later Laura is notified of a man who claims to be her brother and what is left of their pieced together lives threatens to break apart again.
What Could Be Saved is written in a dual timeline, segueing between 1970s Bangkok and modern-day Washington D.C. where Robert has died and Genevieve is slipping into dementia. Laura is 54 and living alone as a somewhat reclusive artist of waning popularity. She and her sister have a largely transactional relationship in caring for their mother. When this news arrives, Bea is dismissive, as they’ve been misled before, but Laura doesn’t hesitate. She goes to Bangkok to see a woman who claims Philip has been living with her father in a commune-like setting. The father has died and Philip has no place to go.
Each family member’s response to Philip’s disappearance is the main plot and source of tension in the novel, but author Liese Schwarz unfolds ancillary stories that fill in the realities of Thai life and allow the past to bleed into the present. Most notably, both Robert and Genevieve had lives their children knew nothing about. There are also the lives of the family’s servants, from maids to drivers, who are so interchangeable they are often called by numbers not their names. All may hold more significance than is immediately apparent.
I often say I don’t like too much plot and What Could Be Saved falls somewhat into this realm. So many loose ends waiting to be tied—which Schwarz does, but the attention they take detracts from what I appreciated most about the novel, the intimate details of Bangkok life and the quieter moments and emotions. In particular, those regarding aging. She slips inside Genevieve’s mind, revealing the perfect pleating that layers past and present into a dreamscape of reality. Loved ones are young and old in the same moment. Somehow, her representation makes this feel more reassuring than frightening.
This emotional care in the present may be due, in part, to the lack of emotion in the past. There is a chill to the chapters set in the 1970s as Genevieve marshals her family through rigorous trials of etiquette and appearances. Expectations for all were high and Philip, in particular, didn’t fit in.
My rating system right now is tempered by the extremes of this month. The shock I felt at what happened at the Capitol has numbed my brain. In the case of What Could Be Saved, I awarded an extra half star for both Schwarz’s writing style and a story that kept my eyes on the page, even if it was a bit much. Because what does that even mean right now?
Backlist Beauty about life abroad: The Expatriates. Lots of parallels to What Could Be Saved.
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