Memory is the one mercy that grief offers us. Anyone who has lost a loved one can describe the sudden rush of memories that instantly start playing back in rapid-fire succession, just seconds after the realization that there is a person — was a person — who is never coming back. It's both succor and torture, and it seems to last forever.
Memory is unreliable, of course, and can be treacherous, but it's still what saves us when we're mourning. That's why we read and reread letters and e-mails, even the ones that once seemed insignificant, when we realize that's all there will ever be.
"I mean, these are lifelines," says a character in Rosecrans Baldwin's stunning debut novel of grief and memory, You Lost Me There. "Imagine if words meant that much to you or me, to be a saving grace. I mean, because what's left afterward, except what we've written down?"
Words prove to be a saving grace, though not necessarily how you'd expect, to scientist Victor Aaron, the main character of You Lost Me There. Victor is a leading Alzheimer's disease researcher at a prestigious institute in coastal Maine; his wife, Sara, a screenwriter, was killed in a car crash a few years ago. Victor has never fully processed his wife's death but still manages to function, if just barely. He works long hours at the laboratory; tries to maintain an increasingly sexless sexual affair with a frustrated colleague; and plays host to his friend's daughter, a self-righteous but sweet college graduate working at a nearby restaurant. His only real friend in town is his late wife's aunt, Betsy, but he's reluctant to talk to anyone about the index cards he has found in his home — Sara's bitter, sometimes angry account of turning points in their relationship. Victor is forced to realize his memories of their marriage may be inaccurate, right as he is finally coming to terms with Sara's death.
Grief has a way of taking people places they'd rather not go, and Victor is no exception — his unpredictability ends up both helping and hurting him, in surprising ways. But the most surprising thing about You Lost Me There is Baldwin's self-assured, subtle and unfailingly moving prose — this book does not read like the work of a young, first-time novelist. The 33-year-old writer — a magazine editor and former EMT and rock-climbing teacher — is uncannily perceptive when it comes to the complicated and fraught issues of marriage, death and sexual desire, and his dialogue is naturalistic and unforced. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the author's artistic and emotional maturity — You Lost Me There is, finally, a wise book, the kind that eludes many authors twice Baldwin's age. Words, of course, really can be lifelines, especially in the aftermath of loss. It's not always easy to find beauty in pain, but that's what Baldwin has done, and the result is affecting, profound and true.