Don’t read this book on a plane. Or if you ever hope to fly again.
Ann Napolitano’s new novel, “Dear Edward,” opens with the crash of a sold-out flight from New York to Los Angeles. A conspiracy of freak weather conditions and pilot error sends the Airbus A321 rocketing into the ground somewhere in Colorado.
If that isn’t terrifying enough, in alternating chapters, the novel returns to that flight in its final hours, minutes and seconds. This allows us to get to know some of the doomed passengers — an old tycoon disgusted with his infirmity, a discharged soldier grappling with his sexuality, a young woman hoping to get married — until we experience their plane plummeting into the flatlands anew.
I read these fatalistic chapters in a crouching stance of dread. There’s something brutal about killing a planeload of people and then introducing a handful of them and killing them all over again. But the cruelty of this aspect of the novel’s structure is countered by the astonishing tenderness of other sections. Amid the wreckage of that downed jet, one passenger is found alive: a 12-year-old boy named Edward.
Napolitano, the associate editor of One Story magazine, has written a novel about the peculiar challenges of surviving a public disaster in the modern age. She shows with bracing clarity just how cable news and social media magnify misery and exposure as never before. Edward awakens in the hospital as the world’s most famous orphan. Broken and terrified, he must immediately shoulder a weird blend of trauma and adulation. Having lost his loving parents and a brother he idolized, he does not feel “lucky.” Despite being dubbed “The Boy Who Lived,” he wields no magic, but millions of web pages claim otherwise. Mourning relatives, conspiracy theorists and morbid gawkers grab at him as though he’s in a zombie apocalypse of grief. Every day when Edward practices walking, a small crowd gathers on the other side of the street. “Worst parade ever,” he thinks.
Napolitano attends to this cultural context deftly, letting the world’s agony and curiosity play out largely on the sidelines of what remains a delicate story of one boy’s physical and psychological recovery. Although Edward has been abruptly expelled from childhood, he’s not yet an adult, either. “We need to figure out what you are,” his therapist says, “so we can figure out how to help you.” One thing the boy knows instinctively is that the torrent of advice, wisdom and counsel raining down upon him is essentially useless. Suspended in a fugue of depression, he’s largely oblivious to his surroundings. His memories, Napolitano writes, appear “like a burglar bursting through a locked door without warning.” Bracing himself against such intrusions, he wills himself “to remember nothing, think nothing, until all that exists is a flatness — a flatness that he now identifies as himself.”
That blankness at the center of this novel could have become a kind of black hole absorbing all light and interest, but Napolitano captures the subtle shades of Edward’s spirit like the earliest intimations of dawn. Even trapped in the painful narcissism of bereavement, Edward remains attentive to certain frequencies of others’ sadness. He has “the sensation that he’s being followed by more ghosts than he can personally account for.” He senses immediately, for instance, that his aunt and uncle have set aside their own private sorrows to create a new home for him. They have no time to mourn their latest miscarriage. The unused nursery must be redecorated. The baby they were praying for has arrived as a 12-year-old boy trailing clouds of death.
I fear I’m making this sound repellently gloomy, but in Napolitano’s gentle handling, it’s persistently lovely. In fact, “Dear Edward” sometimes feels like Judith Guest’s “Ordinary People” re-imagined in pastel colors. Much of that sweetness stems from her portrayal of Edward, who is indeed dear, but it’s a strange girl named Shay who really leavens the novel.
With Shay, Napolitano captures the authentic quirkiness of a precocious adolescent. She lives next door to Edward’s aunt and uncle, and from the start she’s the only person who speaks to Edward with complete and cleansing candor. While everyone else tries to keep him happy in a little terrarium of normal life, Shay comes right out and tells him early on: “I heard a doctor on TV say that there was a zero percent chance of survival from your plane crash. ... You’ll never be a normal kid.” From the summit of her own oddness, she understands Edward’s oddness.
“Shay feels like oxygen to him,” Napolitano writes. She provides exactly the atmosphere of clarity that this fractured boy needs to rebuild his life, and watching them do that together is one of the most touching stories you’re likely to read in the new year.
Ron Charles is the fiction editor of the Washington Post.