Caroline Leavitt’s “Is This Tomorrow” is a near-miss of a riveting novel. The fulcrum of the story is a parental nightmare: the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy, Jimmy. And yet, as much as you want to get close to the three main characters — Jimmy’s sister, his best friend, and his best friend’s mother, and the impact this horrific event has on them — the detached writing style keeps you at arm’s length. This is not usually the case with Leavitt’s fiction; the author of nine previous novels, her writing often pulls you right into a story and holds you there.
“Is This Tomorrow” is set in a working-class Waltham, Mass. neighborhood. It’s also firmly planted in 1950s Cold War culture: a culture of married mortgage holders who raise their families to worship Jesus and hate the Russians. As Leavitt draws this world, it’s mostly fear that drives these beliefs, because just beyond the always-unlocked screen doors loom the specters of nuclear annihilation and spies who could take down the American way of life. As one young girl at a neighborhood gathering suddenly sobs: “What if the Russians get to the moon first? Will we still get to look at it every night?”
Best to color well inside firmly established cultural lines.
Living at the edge of these lines are Ava and her whip-smart son Lewis, in the neighborhood but not quite of it. Ava is divorced, Jewish, and a full-time working mother. Her penchant for figure-hugging skirts and shorts sets her apart from the more mundane fare of housedresses and skirted bathing suits. Though everyone’s friendly, she can feel the other mothers’ disdain, “as if they wanted to take an eraser to her and redraw her from scratch.”
For a woman raised by her family to meekly marry, Ava is now fiercely, messily independent, having survived the collapse of her marriage to the callously shallow Brian, whose post-divorce parenting style is to schedule visits with their son and then never show up. The story of this one family might have been enough for its own novel.
Now in sixth grade, Lewis has spent elementary school learning how to conceal most of his personality. He recites the Lord’s Prayer each morning with the other students; he no longer asks many questions in class; he leaves his favorite foods, like bagels, at home, to avoid taunts like “What’s with the donut bread?”
Lewis’s best (and only) friends live across the street. Jimmy, also in sixth grade, has a schoolboy crush on Ava. His sister Rose, a year older, carries a rather bright torch for Lewis.
Period details are cleverly layered into the story, providing depth without being intrusive: kids wear dungarees, not jeans; perfumes on a vanity are Wind Song or Arpege; women lunch at Brigham’s and Woolworth’s. In addition to the requisite milkman, the neighborhood has a Drake’s Cakes truck, an Avon lady, and even a regular tradesman who sharpens scissors and knives.
On a Wednesday afternoon in 1956 that’s much like any other, Jimmy strolls to Lewis’s house, but he’s not home and Ava needs to leave soon to work extra hours at her typist job. As she drives off, Jimmy waves to her from his front step. That is the last time anyone sees him.
The police, Jimmy’s widowed mother, and all the families on the street search the surrounding blocks and the nearby woods – but Jimmy has vanished without a trace. After they spend a few weeks questioning everyone, the police seem to lose interest. Residents complain amongst themselves that the case wouldn’t have closed so quickly if a boy from Belmont or Cambridge had gone missing, exposing the economic strata that trumps all other social divides.
Months turn into years. Rose and then Lewis move away, searching for new lives in new locales. But neither can get beyond the loss of their brother and best friend. In fact, Rose and Lewis both become so adept at walling themselves off from co-workers and romantic entanglements that their sections seem more pokey documentary than story gliding forward.
Back in Waltham, Ava transforms herself again, this time in a charmingly surprising way: by baking pies. As a young bride, her mother had advised her to cook like a modern woman: “Get a mix. Use cans.” Now Ava revels in concocting luscious fillings and perfecting flaky crusts. She brings them into the office, she ships them to Lewis, and she starts selling them to a local diner. Does this belong in a different book? Maybe. But it’s a welcome light in an endlessly gray landscape of sadness.
Eventually all the strange pieces of Jimmy’s disappearance come together in unexpected ways. But after following these characters for most of their lives, you’re left wishing all the parts had added up to a greater literary whole.
Carol Iaciofano’s book reviews and op-ed columns have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and The Hartford Courant. Carol is also a co-author of the pop culture computer anthology, “Digital Deli.”
This program aired on July 1, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.