As Elizabeth Oness opens her debut novel Departures, a mother of three grown daughters has just disappeared. “I’m leaving the country for a while. Don’t look for me. Don’t worry,” she writes. And she’s gone.
Zeke is the first sister to receive a note. She is at the farm she runs for the University, and she is right in the middle of a crisis with a pony. She has checked her e-mail while waiting for a return call from the vet, a new friend of hers.
Pagan is next. The thud of the mail interrupts her pregnant reverie. She had been gazing out the window, making some decaf, and enjoying the quiet spell cast by her toddler’s nap.
Prana, the youngest of the three, comes home to her mail after a long day designing arrangements for a cookbook photo-shoot. She is an artist who has not yet found her calling, a beauty who has devoted herself to a married photographer for nine years.
The sisters’ very names bespeak previous departures, each emblematic of a discarded step along the mother’s spiritual path. Rebelling against the stifling conventionality she had grown up with, the mother bestowed these odd names on her girls with the intent to set them free. The mother’s own struggles for self-hood and her hopes for her daughters are her legacy in their lives, the echoes of her that remain when her living presence is — at least temporarily — absent.
Departures cause a break not just in space but in time, separating what has been from what is yet to be. Each of these women is about to make a departure of her own, from the life she has become accustomed to, with its illusory securities and its limitations on her identity as a woman.
The relationships between the sisters have become weakened by habitual neglect and the wear and tear of familial irritations, knowing each other too well and not well enough. Ordinarily their mother would be there to smooth the way, be a sounding board for their soul searching, a communication line to the other sisters. But in the absence of the mother, each sister needs to dig deeper into herself, test out the other relationships in her life, and consider her sisters on adult terms.
Each a mystery to the other, the women reveal themselves to the reader in intimate and compelling detail. It is in the portraits of the sisters and the movements within and among them that the book lives. Richly drawn with a patient eye for their movement through their days, these women are both warmly familiar and intriguingly unique. Sometimes I found myself wondering if Oness could perhaps streamline her narrative a bit more; do we really need to read the passage from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that Zeke reads aloud to little Eleanor? But Oness knows what she is doing, and her patience is part of her genius. She crafts the texture and rhythm of lived experience, somehow always managing to retain a lithe springiness as we move backward or onward. The lavish detail of the sisters’ daily vignettes, memories, and impressions add up to give the reader the sense of walking in each character’s shoes at key moments in their lives. Indeed, we gain vivid impressions both of how these sisters have formed their sense of self thus far, and what parts of them must emerge if they are to rise to the challenges currently facing them.
As a mother, I particularly relished Oness’ fluency in life with children. Here we see Pagan’s life with her toddler and her complex feelings about her unborn child; here we see Zeke’s complex attachment to her alcoholic lover’s children. Some details function almost as a mother-to-mother shibboleth from writer to reader. For example, Pagan and Prana strive to have their first heart-to-heart disussion in a long while, over and above the cacophonous clanging in the kitchen. Pagan waves her hand dismissively at her todder’s noise. ” ‘It’s that old percolator. She loves putting the pieces together. I just decided to let her trash it.’ Pagan grinned. ‘Path of least resistance.’ ” Reading such passages I knew that this writer was either a mother herself or one hell of an involved aunt — this woman knows life with children from the inside.
But what about the missing mother? The impetus for the novel is the hole she has left in their lives, and much text is devoted to searching her house and her daughters’ memories for clues. Did the demands of single motherhood force her to give up too much of herself? Has she run off to pursue a long-forgotten dream, or could this adventure be an extension of a secret life she had managed to quietly nurture those long hard years? Oness flirts with these questions, but, as the mother’s lack of a name in the novel and her own spare notes to her daughters hint, there is less meat on the bones of this narrative.
And perhaps that’s the point. In the end, the passages on the mother serve to underline how little the girls knew her, how much they perceived her through the lenses of their own needs, fears, and expectations.
My one complaint in this thoroughly enjoyable novel concerns the ramifications of the mother’s departure within the mother-daughter relationships. Apart from the mother’s motives for privacy, couldn’t she have found a way to give her daughters some more information? For all they know, she’s been kidnapped, and their investigations are in part to allay their fears for her safety. Her way of leaving cuts off her daughters without any obvious context for such a breach in trust. As adults, the daughters’ dependence on her is not so intrusive as to merit being taught a lesson in this way.
So was the mother’s abrupt and unexplained departure a mere — gasp! — plot device? Maybe. But by the end of the novel I didn’t care. The real mystery for this novel is the gradual but steady transformation of the characters of Zeke, Pagan, and Prana. How they face the dizzying risks and magnificent possibilities within their own lives is worth the price of admission many times over. With all their compromises and imperfections, their dreams and deepest fears, the sisters prove to be more than enough for the reader, and, ultimately, for themselves and each other as well.