"I am so proud of myself for having finished [the book] as a mother," she says. In fact, she believes that the processes of raising her child and writing her book ran parallel — "Having a child . . . I learned how to kind of submit to something. I had no choice but to submit to his needs." Creating the novel was a similar type of submission.
The interwoven stories could stand alone as separate novellas, and Braunstein admits that the vastness of the web she wove was "anxiety-provoking." Her solution, ultimately, was to describe each scene on an index card, and then spread those index cards across her kitchen floor.
"I never see the forest," she says. "The cards allowed me to evaluate what each scene was doing" in relation to the grander story arc.
That narrative thread, which Braunstein describes as "hyperreal," is wound around Leonora, a young girl whose story bookends the novel — touching, by degrees, all the others. The opening description of her upper-middle-class upbringing is humorous and real.
"Girls needed to be wary and strong and curious but not too curious," we hear through a knowing narrator's voice. "'Say 'feminist,' the mother coached, and the girl, as a toddler, said it. Still, she was given the traditional things, babydolls and pink . . . Her mother knew how to accept a paradox: a girl could be anything, could shatter the glass ceiling, but she was still a girl."
Unlike the adults in Braunstein's book, Leonora seems to have a lot figured out. She comes up with gems like: "All hope was misplaced. The world needed hope desperately, but it always came from the wrong people and went to the wrong things" — and she accepts life's contradictions.
Braunstein makes a compelling case for those incongruities, and for the capacity for people to contain multitudes. She's particularly successful at conveying this through Judith, who runs away and experiences trauma as a teenage, then is rescued (or rescues herself) and goes on to live a relatively stable life with a husband and child.
Judith wonders "[h]ow to describe the infinite restraint, the tenderness, the longing to be alone and gratitude that she wasn't and the fantasy of some other man throwing her into his backseat like a sack of trash?" She wants, as so many do, everything at once.
Indeed, even the title of the book smashes together opposite impulses. On one hand there is a "sweet relief." That's good. But wait — "of missing children"? That's tragic. That shouldn't inspire positive feelings. Right? Are we even allowed to voice such forbidden impulses? Are we allowed to find our children unknowable and frightening? Are we allowed to want sex without love, to love without sex, to admit that our self-worth comes from feeling wanted?
In The Sweet Relief of Missing Children
, Braunstein says yes. She lets those feelings wash over her characters. Not that they know what do with them. But they're bathed all the same.
Here is Constance, again, through Braunstein's close narration: "She felt, for the first time in many, many years — what was the word that meant you were alone in a dirty room and a bulb is flickering overhead and there are fingerprints on the windows and no one comes when you call them, no one, because all of it — the love, the order, the calm — has been a trick of your imagination?"