The Year Without Michael by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Bantam Books: $13.95, hardcover; 176 pages)
Family tragedy often brings out the worst in everybody, ripping apart the delicate fabric of close relationships.
"The Year Without Michael" describes in painful detail what happens to Jody and Kay's family when their young brother Michael disappears. In a way it reminded me of "Ordinary People," but in that book the brother's death was clear and final. In "The Year Without Michael" there is no clarity, no finality. Instead, there is always hope. And hope is not kind.
The tension of this book builds around not what really happened to Michael or if he will return, but on what's going to happen to the family? From this, author Susan Beth Pfeffer creates a suspenseful story.
In the opening chapter, we meet the Chapmans: Michael, 13, on his way to play softball; Jody, soon to be 16, on her way to the movies, and Kay, 12, who'll be the hardest hit by Michael's disappearance. Before the three separate, they discuss the family situation: Their father has gone away to contemplate divorce. And that's the last anyone sees of Michael.
A Painful Wait
Hours turn into days and days into weeks, with certain milestones along the way: On Michael's 14th birthday the family has a cake, buys him presents, waits for him to come home. It's a painful scene, but perhaps the most wrenching is Kay's birthday.
Kay, turning 12, angry, is the only one in the family who voices the forbidden thought: that Michael is dead, and that it would be better to know it for sure than to go on like this. When she invites six friends to her party, not one shows up.
Jody carries many of the family's psychological burdens, but in some ways Kay suffers the most. She's upset by people's inability to deal with the crisis, and she becomes the target for much of her mother's frustration. Then it's Jody's turn for rejection: Her new boyfriend can't handle her emotional trauma.
In their different ways, each member of the family struggles through the stages of loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They fight with each other and they make up. They think they can't stand the not-knowing any longer, but they do. And eventually they learn to get on with their lives.
The story is a heartbreaker, but it must be said that the novel succeeds in spite of the writing.
A Triumph Over Style
Told almost entirely in dialogue, story triumphs over style. You feel as though you're reading a script instead of a novel.
A pity, because nothing should detract from the story's raw, honest feeling. You cannot read "The Year Without Michael" and remain untouched.