The Mysteries of Friendship, Illuminated by Spooky Quantum Physics

The New York Times
By Louisa Hall

In the 19th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge attended public chemistry lectures to expand his “stock of metaphors.” Science, he wrote, “being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was poetical.” In yoking poetry to cutting-edge science, Coleridge was hardly unique: In the 17th century, Milton used Galileo’s telescope as a metaphor in “Paradise Lost”; Donne incorporated both the Copernican and the Ptolemaic systems into his verse; Margaret Cavendish wrote about space travel and atoms. Such images, borrowed from science, send us through the looking glass. They cause the universe to expand and contract; they force us to know ourselves in new and startling contexts.

In “Lost and Wanted,” her third novel, about a quantum physicist whose best friend from college has recently died, Nell Freudenberger joins this august tradition, expanding her stock of metaphors with the language of quantum physics. The effect is beautiful. Freudenberger navigates complicated concepts from physics with admirable clarity, and those concepts — entanglement, uncertainty, gravitational waves — help us feel in new ways the ongoing influence of dormant friendships, the difficulties involved with believing in attachments that can’t be observed, the enduring pull of discarded hopes.

In Freudenberger’s hands, long scientific digressions — about the search for the Higgs boson, the existence of dark matter, the collisions of black holes — never feel unnecessary. For one thing, they’re described in splendidly accessible language. For another, our narrator, Helen, is a professor of physics, and this is how she understands the world. She numbers her chapters, makes lists of what she and her sister don’t talk about, organizes her thoughts in bullet points. She observes her own grief at the loss of her best friend, Charlie, and records its dimensions precisely. She does not allow herself the indulgence of any outlandish sorrow, and so it is often during those scientific digressions that we feel her loss most acutely. As when, for instance, she describes Einstein’s resistance to the concept of “spooky action at a distance”: “It’s a real phenomenon, though, one that has less to do with communication than with a shared history that causes a pair of particles, even once they’ve been permanently separated, to behave as if they knew what each other was thinking.”

Or when she meditates on the death of the physicist Schwarzschild, who wrote with such wonder to Einstein, mathematically proving his theory of relativity while serving on the German side of World War I: “There is a crater named for him on the northern part of the far side of the moon.”

This is a character with her own particular way of experiencing loss, and her language — her scientific metaphors, her crisp diction, the curtness of her sentences — allows us to feel that.

After Charlie’s death, Helen begins to receive mysterious text messages and emails from her, and so, in addition to being a novel about science, “Lost and Wanted” is also a ghost story. In merging the two, Freudenberger joins another august tradition: that of fiction about science and ghosts, from Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Gate of Angels” to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s “Properties of Light” and Andrea Barrett’s short story “The Marburg Sisters.” All these works — Freudenberger’s included — use ghost stories to intensify the mysteries involved in the scientific pursuit, just as they use science to reinforce the very real fact that we are at all times affected by invisible forces we can’t observe and haven’t yet understood.

In “Lost and Wanted,” the haunting occurs via the text messages and emails from Charlie’s phone, stolen just after her death. At times, Helen allows herself to believe that these communications are actually from Charlie. But, for the most part, it’s pretty clear that the mystery isn’t whether Charlie is operating her phone from another dimension, but who stole Charlie’s phone, and why this person has chosen to contact Helen.

So much of the power of ghost stories — from “Get Out” to “The Turn of the Screw” — derives from the uncertainty they invoke in readers (or viewers), that state of suspended logic in which it is unclear whether the protagonist is losing his or her mind as a result of grief or fear or anger, or whether supernatural forces are indeed at work in the world. They’re powerful because of the uncertainties they force us to live with, the insanity they cause us to approach. In “Lost and Wanted,” however, logic always prevails, at least when it comes to the messages from Charlie’s phone. For that reason, they never add up to a particularly powerful haunting.

The more affecting haunting is the way in which, after her death, Charlie occupies Helen’s mind and changes the reality she occupies. As though steered by Charlie’s hand, Helen reflects on the phases of their friendship: those years in college when she and Charlie were roommates; the years after Charlie moved to Los Angeles, when their friendship became strained; recent years, when Charlie was sick and they hardly spoke; and the present moment, now that Charlie is gone.

Reviewing the history of their relationship, Helen discovers how little she really knew about her friend. She recalls an episode in which Charlie was grotesquely harassed by her thesis adviser, and realizes that she and her friend had hardly discussed the incident. She recalls that they avoided the subject of race, and is reminded by an acquaintance that she, a white woman, could never have understood the pressures that Charlie, a woman of color, was forced to endure, both in college and as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

Helen sees that she didn’t understand Charlie’s marriage, her illness or her relationship with her parents. As a result, Helen loses her best friend over and over again: not only to death, but to all these points of missed intersection, these moments when the two passed each other by without the necessary collision. After Charlie’s death, Helen has to process simultaneously the loss of her best friend and the fact that she never knew her as well as she should have.

“Lost and Wanted” is a novel of female friendship without the furious intimacy of, say, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. It’s a novel about female friendship begun in America in the 1990s, when women didn’t talk about sexual harassment and friends didn’t talk about race. When women (and especially women of color) were trying to build careers for themselves and no one was acknowledging how much harder it would be for them than it would be for white men in their position, and trying to do so while having children, either with partners or on their own, and trying to balance all of that striving without ever giving anyone reason to believe that they were more emotional or less stable than any of their peers.

If this, then, is a somewhat remote female friendship, no wonder: Under such strain, the book seems to say, it’s incredible that women sustain any friendships at all. And yet, in this startling novel, even that distance between Charlie and Helen is moving. The space that opens between them reverberates with what might have been, if Charlie’s thesis adviser hadn’t been such a measly and repugnant predator, if Charlie hadn’t moved to Los Angeles, if Helen weren’t raising a child alone, if they’d both had more time, if Helen had understood Charlie’s illness, if she’d asked her all the questions she didn’t.

In this novel, which teems with lives, the versions of their friendship in which those errors didn’t occur seem to exist alongside the versions that did, and these alongside relationships with various partners, children, siblings, parents and colleagues. Reading it, I was moved by intimacies near and far, real and imagined, lost and found in all the echoing corners of the expanding universe.

Nell Freudenberger
Fiction
Lost and Wanted