There is no word for that sensation, of course. We have not found a way, yet, to succinctly describe the feeling of our veils falling away — the veils we so diligently tacked up.

"He touched Grace like he knew how but also like he'd never touched a girl before. How did he manage that? She knew for a fact that he'd touched several girls."

There is sex in this book. Not much of it explicit, save a few scenes. But there are undeniable undercurrents of desire, heat, craving. Children wonder about sex. Adolescents embrace or deny it, explore it. Adults use it as currency, or for affirmation. Sexuality beckons in other forms, as the desire to flee, or the need for stability.

Constance, for example, revels in the "sexual edge" of a clean and gleaming kitchen — a thrill she doesn't get from her husband. (There are moments, especially concerning two of the adult women, that feel Feminine Mystique-y. Coincidentally, Betty Friedan's expose about women's deep-seated unhappiness — which sparked second-wave feminism — was also published by W.W. Norton, in 1963.)

Paul, a young boy, feels his mother's breasts through her nightgown as she kisses him one night. "It was how one kisses a baby. It was how a new mother, unsure if she likes her infant, kisses him, an attempt to generate tenderness, to prove the child, to prove herself, worthy."

Later, as an adult, Paul adopts the name Pax. Pax develops a relationship with a man named Ricky. They mess around. "Their teeth clicked. The sound to Ricky's ears was the click of two glasses, the chime of a toast. Their kiss felt like that, a toast, awkward and full of appetite."

In each of these worlds, for each of these characters, sex represents something different — and it is inextricably linked to the search not only for happiness, but for self.

"I was interested in exploring the idea of sex as a vehicle for change," Braunstein says.

They may not change, per se, but her characters certainly use sex as a instigator of agency. Whether participating in the act, or merely feeling its aftershocks charge through their bodies, sex jolts these men and women into greater self-awareness.

Braunstein takes this opportunity to point out that "there's very little [in the book] that comes from my own life," and points out with special fervor that she is "overjoyed" to be a mom.

But she does right by her flawed characters — and by living, breathing, humanity — to admit that because she wrote the book so soon after becoming a parent, "I was probably able to put a finer point on motherhood and its complexities. Maybe writing the book did allow me to explore those parts of the experience that were taboo."

The Sweet Relief of Missing Children forces us to ask why we're so scared of voicing the unvoiceable.

After all, as Judith says, nothing is really unthinkable — "Just the same mundane horror that happened everywhere. It was an ordinary house. But of course there was no house that wasn't its own chamber of horrors, that didn't somewhere, have a hidden door, a hidden mouth."

And that's okay.


See for yourself

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