What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribner, Jan 2014)-Don’t expect a straightforward crime novel from What We’ve Lost is Nothing. In fact, this book is an examination of the 24 hours after the crime happens. Oak Park, Illinois is a lovely, posh neighborhood, and it butts right up against Chicago’s notorious west side. Ilois Lane is a peaceful, and some might say very ordinary street, but its inhabitants are anything but, and their stories are what make up the considerable meat of this novel that very effectively mines the undercurrents of our daily lives, and explores how isolated we can be from our neighbors. The McPherson’s daughter, 15 year old Mary Elizabeth, is under her family’s dining room table with her friend Sofia, getting high when the burglars hit her home in broad daylight. She’s not discovered, but she’s left to explain why she was skipping school and who she was skipping with. When they find out that her friend is Sofia, the daughter of Cambodian refugees, suspicion is immediately cast on them, especially since they seem to have had the least stolen among the residents. And just who, really, are the teen boys (supposedly Sofia’s cousins), with their loud music and bandannas, that spend quite a bit of time at Sofia’s home?
The McPhersons form a neighborhood watch group, of sorts, and of course the police are conducting their own investigation. We do get to know each of the residents that were burglarized, and how the aftermath of such an intrusive crime affects each one. There’s Étienne, a chef with a failing restaurant who claims he was in France at the time of the burglary but in truth, never went. There’s Arthur, who has hemeralopia, and who mourns the gradual loss of not only his sight, but also his independence, but takes comfort in the time Mary Elizabeth spends with him reading aloud. And of course, there’s Mary’s mom, Susan, who has been a crusader for melding the west side with their own idyllic community, but finds herself doubting everything she’s ever stood for, and Michael, Mary’s father, who feels oddly detached, not only from life, but from his own failings as a father and husband, and whose boiling anger would eventually consume him. And of course there is Mary Elizabeth, whose infatuation with bad-boy Caz will make any woman’s stomach clench that remembers what it was like to want so badly for that boy to like you. And we can’t forget Sofia’s family, Cambodian refugees that rely largely on their daughter for social interaction, but will do anything in order for her to succeed and have a good life. They are a constant source of pride, love, and yes, embarrassment to Sofia, and some of their scenes are heartbreaking. Then there are Alicia and Dan. Alicia has a past of mental illness and has been coddled by her parents, even after marrying Dan, and feeling as if she’s not a participant in her own life, finds her carefully constructed world falling apart, bit by bit.
All of these lives come together explosively on Ilois Lane, and the pain and fear that the crime causes will coalesce into a miasma of mistrust and a kind of rage at their collective loss of control. Loss of control over their tidy lives, and the invisible boundaries that they mistakenly thought kept the bad things away. The narrative is sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately, this is a book about hope, and how one event can be a catalyst for action and change, sometimes good, sometimes tragic.
Rachel Louise Snyder is an experienced journalist, and it shows with her eye for detail, and a compassionate, no nonsense touch. Her knowledge of Oak Park isn’t fictional either; she lived there right after college and experienced firsthand the efforts for integration and the positive effects of community activism. She also lived for a time in Cambodia so is able to give us particular insight on what it is like for refugees to live so outside of one’s true home and be the unfair subjects of suspicion and doubt. What We’ve Lost is Nothing is put together so well, that when the shocking ending comes, you may not know what hit you, but this is one book you’ll want to dive into and stay there, because it’s insidious, in the best way, and will stay with you long after you finish the last page.