Like a buoy bobbing in the waves of Galveston Bay, on the surface, Kristen Bird’s fascinating debut The Night She Went Missing relays the story of a teenage girl from a Texas prep school who disappears after a party one night, and it explores the aftermath of her vanishing as four mothers, including her own, try desperately to piece together the events of that night. What each of them uncovers could have tidal implications for their own standing within both their families and community.
Below the surface, however, this novel is more fundamentally about the conditions fostered by the insular, monied environment that the missing girl was in, and the circumstances that led to her disappearance in the first place. It’s about how far people struggling within the dichotomy of privilege and latent powerlessness will go to protect themselves and the people they love. It’s about the toxicity of good intentions.
Bird’s character-driven, multi-point-of-view story centers around a handful of women living on Galveston Island. There’s Emily, the girl who goes missing. A senior in high school and a classic achiever, she is both a boon to her school community and a perceived threat to the people in it. Catherine, her mother, has uprooted their family in the wake of personal scandal and notoriety in her professional life; a careless lapse into plagiarism has caused her to retreat to the childhood hometown of her husband. In doing so, she has reluctantly transported her children into an isolated landscape both hostile and genteel, and almost surreal in its trappings. Morgan, a quick friend to Catherine and the mother of one of Emily’s few friends at her new school, has grown up in this fraught environment and has also rejected it; she can therefore live both on its fringes and within its tangles. Leslie, struggling to exist in the school community’s narrow social framework, tries to assume power over and within it, clinging to this idea of fiefdom and the best chance she has to salvage her family’s legacy after her husband’s tragic death. Rosalyn, Catherine’s mother-in-law, is a matriarch of such overwhelming power on the island that she has lost sight of reality. These mothers are all driven to craft the best possible outcomes for their children: the most outstanding paths to success, the most appealing reputations, and, when necessary, the most plausible alibis. Most of all, Catherine wants any outcome that brings her daughter safely home.
Bird’s characters are adeptly drawn, genuine to their core, and at times so profoundly misguided that someone outside of such an environment might wonder whether these people could even be real. And yet, they very much are. It’s not difficult to recognize in Rosalyn a familiar disdain dressed up in second-hand concerns as she admonishes her daughter-in-law: “What with Emily’s recent stressors: the move . . . your . . . job change, I just want to make sure you are being attentive.” And when her granddaughter’s early acceptance into Columbia isn’t good enough for Rosalyn, she insists that, with her generous help, Emily could be a Harvard legacy:
. . . though her accomplishments are very remarkable at her previous school . . . Rosalyn loved commenting on the public schools Catherine’s children had attended their entire lives; they were the ones where all Woodhaven faculty kids went, but you would think she was referencing a penitentiary. Public schools were, after all, state-funded.
When another of the mothers realizes her son might be in very serious trouble, she tells her old classmate, “Your son is safe, and mine will be too. One way or another . . . he has to be.” She’s willing to create room to maneuver if the laws of ordinary people can’t give her what she needs. In this, she is no different from every mother in this story, searching for loopholes and back doors and contingency plans, with varying degrees of moral flexibility, to keep her family afloat. Bird draws on the rich pageant of contradictions inherent in the enclave she’s created: wealth, prestige, influence, social pressure, and a perilous inability to recognize just how little those things matter to anyone outside of their bubble. Setting the story on an island, where the characters’ options for literal escape are limited to a ferry or a causeway that might flood in a storm, highlights the subconscious feeling of entrapment for the reader, just as the characters feel trapped by the weight of appearances and gossip, and by the gravity of their own complicated choices.
Even the minor characters are anchored in authenticity; Bird writes teenagers as expertly as she writes adults. These high school and college students include the full range, from overachiever to dropout. They make decisions that propel the story forward into the dark, silty waters of consequence. They are also a reflection of the anxieties and aspirations their mothers have put upon them, whether out of love or desperation. These young people resonate powerfully among readers who know the struggles of adolescence well. Consider the popular girl who worries that her worth is ultimately a matter of whether she can command the most admirers, the capable new girl whose path to valedictorian threatens the status quo, and the boy who cannot escape allegations of sexual assault despite his name being cleared, as these children form dangerous friendships that keep their mothers on the edge of a pier over turbid waters. Bird infuses these familiar characters with a depth that makes them feel new and poignant.
Readers may well find themselves cheering for these young people left to traverse the uncomfortable compromises of the world the generations before them have perpetuated. Those intimately aware of the challenges facing Generation Z will recognize in Bird’s cast everything there is to love about them and be afraid of for them. Ambition and diligence, independence and fragility, curiosity and competence all become both comforting and sinister as their actions lead them down paths their mothers cannot help them navigate.
The novel contains three parts: The Missing, The Searching, and The Unraveling. This structure allows Bird’s literary writing to shine. Those who love reading a good page-turner will find plenty to captivate their attention in The Night She Went Missing. Book lovers and writers who appreciate a tight structure and thoughtful character development will admire Bird’s reliance on deeply nuanced characters to steer the narrative into the path of a compelling storm. Even the landscape, a kind of character in itself, has a taut fish-in-a-blender danger to it that brings the whole novel together. And in echo of the novel’s three parts, the characters must grapple with what’s missing in their own lives before they unravel. They search for meaning or answers beyond Emily’s disappearance, beyond the mysteries inherent to the children who are still present. The novel asks, what power structures will these characters learn to unravel in order to make whole lives for themselves?
Deft exposition pulled me steadily into the complexities of the conflict, giving me a chance to feel intimate with each point-of-view character. It wasn’t long, though, before I stood in the matrix of these interlocking stories, carrying their emotional baggage while I tried to unknit the mystery with them, rooting for them to untangle the problematic hierarchies they themselves alternately maintain and crash against. Interstitial chapters from Emily’s own point of view punctuate the novel’s main story, increasing the emotional suspense while extending questions about what happened to Emily.
Even some of the most unappealing characters will find redemption in their time, and those aren’t the only twists this capable novel will throw at you. Like the best artistic imitation of real life, the story concludes in a satisfying, if not tidy, way, reminding us that beneath every merrily bobbing buoy is a deeper truth anchored to the sometimes hidden swells of consequences in our lives.