Sarah Braunstein's uncomfortable, beautiful hyperreality

(Bitter)sweet emotion
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 23, 2011

There's an unsettling honesty that spills from Portland author Sarah Braunstein's first novel, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children. Reading it feels sometimes like being at a dinner party with someone who's had one too many glasses of wine and becomes searingly candid, fascinating, and beautiful in their vulnerability. That frankness is simultaneously freeing and dangerous. You think to yourself: If she's saying these things out loud, do I have to admit them too?

Braunstein, whose book is published this month by W.W. Norton, allows her characters to say and think the stuff of the subconscious. Over the course of three decades, and through several major storylines, The Sweet Relief presents us with broken men and women who yearn to escape from their own lives. But they do so simply. They don't aspire to greatness beyond the great mirage of individual happiness. And they're not especially deserving (or undeserving) of that fulfillment — no such judgments are passed. These characters harbor (and act on, in some cases) taboo fantasies, sexual desires, and ambivalence about motherhood. And still they are permitted to dream of getting it right.

Just like the rest of us.

Consider pregnant Constance, whose dread of pending parenthood is aired openly: "She allowed herself a vicious, utterly incomprehensible thought: She did not want to bear this child growing in her gut. She did not want to have a child at all! My goodness! She almost wanted to laugh, for she had no idea a person could become such a surprise to herself."

She's right, the thought may be both vicious and uncomfortable. But it's also one that deserves to be voiced.

Braunstein's approach led one literary admirer, the author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (whose Madeline is Sleeping was a National Book Award finalist) to say Braunstein demonstrates "radical empathy" for her characters. (This accolade was dished out at the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" event — Braunstein, 34, was chosen for the honor late last year, even before her debut novel was officially released.)

"When I feel stuck in a scene, my instinct is to write about the worst thing that character's done," Braunstein says. "What some of that character's guiltiest thoughts are. That's how I feel empathy for them. I need to see the grossness in order to feel compassion."

I first met Braunstein in 2007. She was new to town and had two master's degrees and a two-month-old son; we sat at a small table in the old Arabica and she confessed to being in a bit of a post-partum funk — "overwhelmed and confused."

But her life was about to change. She'd just received a sizeable award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and it would allow her to work on her novel-in-progress. Its working title was Split, which played both with the action of "splitting" (i.e., getting out of Dodge) and how people "split" themselves "so they can make life feel more manageable."

We met earlier this month, fittingly, in Arabica's new(ish), brighter, bigger space. Split turned into The Sweet Relief of Missing Children; her boy is now three. She is working on a second novel and a collection of essays.

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