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What it’s about: When their neighborhood is battered by opioids, two sisters choose very different paths through the wreckage. One is a cop; the other is an addict. And one of the two is missing.
Why I picked it: Dysfunctional family, police involvement, bird’s-eye view of an unfamiliar city, erosion of lines between work and personal lives: These are a few of my favorite things.
If I picked up the phone and called my sister right now, I could unlock a flood of memories for both of us simply by saying the word “doughnut.” In our shared patois, these syllables contain multitudes, stories within stories — none remotely interesting or worthy of elaboration, but all pointing to the fact that we’ve invented our own language. As sisters do.
Liz Moore — who has written three other memorable novels, “The Words of Every Song,” “Heft” and “The Unseen World,” and should be a household name — dives into this kind of sisterly symbiosis in her twisty literary thriller, LONG BRIGHT RIVER (Riverhead, $26). Mickey Fitzpatrick, the narrator, is the older, responsible one, a single mother and Philadelphia cop. Kacey is the wild child, an addict in a family tree pruned down to shrubbery by overdose. (The book opens with a list of 54 names, including parents, aunts, uncles and cousins; you understand without being told that they have drugs in common.)
Growing up in the midst of chaos, the Fitzpatrick sisters were close. As Mickey puts it, “We knew each other so well, we could predict the next thing the other would say before she said it.” But by the time we meet them, those days are over.
Kacey has been missing for months when Mickey answers a call at work about a body on the train tracks. When the dispatcher says, “Female, age unclear, probably overdose,” you can imagine where her mind goes.
The woman is not Kacey. But other dead women begin to turn up in Mickey’s precinct: a 17-year-old, an 18-year-old, a 25-year-old, each strangled and abandoned in a public place. The detectives hunt for a serial killer while Mickey intensifies the search for her sister. Her desperation is palpable, as is the needle-in-a-haystack frustration of locating someone who doesn’t want to be found.
[ Read an excerpt from “Long Bright River.” ]
If searching is the current beneath “Long Bright River,” the Fitzpatrick family story is the horizon to keep your eye on. Mickey struggles to build a stable childhood for her son, but her efforts are thwarted by her demanding job, a flaky babysitter and a grinchy mom who body-blocks a Happy Meal at a hastily thrown-together birthday party. (Weeks after reading this scene, it still makes my blood boil.) Through flashbacks, we learn how Mickey arrived at such a lonely place — and we start to root for her reconnection with more problematic members of her past, including the Fitzpatricks’ grandmother, Gee. (Picture Marilla Cuthbert crossed with Miss Hannigan and a tiny bit of “Matilda”’s The Trunchbull thrown in just to make everyone miserable.)
Without giving too much away, it seems appropriate that Moore’s novel comes to a head in the choir loft of a crumbling cathedral. Because even in the midst of their crime-ridden, drug-addled neighborhood, Moore’s people have a steely kind of faith. Not necessarily the kind that brings you to your knees — although there’s some of that too —but the belief that makes you stand a little taller and hold out for something better, against all odds. Moore gives you a lot to chew on here: workplace ethics, geographic inertia, family loyalty. Her careful balance of the hard-bitten with the heartfelt is what elevates “Long Bright River” from entertaining page-turner to a book that makes you want to call someone you love.
Why do you think Mickey never told her son she loved him?
In the “every man (or woman] for herself” world of Mickey and Kacey’s childhood, how do their different choices make sense?
When did you start to suspect the culprit? What were your clues?
How does the author make the Kensington neighborhood come alive?
“Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” by Beth Macy. Want to understand the roots of the opioid epidemic? Beth Macy takes you there with her thorough, unflinching and empathic reporting.
“Cost,” by Roxana Robinson. A family grapples with heroin addiction in this heartbreaking but enlightening novel. If you think addiction couldn’t happen to your nearest and dearest, Robinson gently prods you to think again.
“Ask Again, Yes,” by Mary Beth Keane. On its surface, Keane’s novel is about the friendship of two families who live next door to each other in a small town. Peel back a layer and you find what links them: Both fathers started out as New York City cops. Their bond turns out to be stronger than you think.