Michael Frank’s What Is Missing consists of several mid-life romances set amidst fraught family dynamics. The female protagonist, Costanza, is consumed by her desire to have a child, though she is past her optimal years of fertility — a fact that complicates both of her marriages.
At the start of the novel, Constanza’s first husband, Morton — a famous Jewish author — has been dead one year. He becomes an active narrator through his diary, which relates how Constanza’s quest for a pregnancy destroyed his sexual and romantic feelings for her. Henry Weissman, a physician specializing in assisted reproduction, becomes Costanza’s new romantic interest, and eventual husband.
Assisted reproduction features prominently in the novel. The reader is taken through the tests, the drugs, the cycles, the procedures, and the acute loss of control experienced by women hoping for a baby. Henry is on a mission to make women pregnant — to make life. His father, Leopold, a holocaust survivor, guided him to the field of assisted reproduction for revenge on the Nazis. Leopold tells Costanza that Henry, “tries to replace what they took away.” However, Henry is an absent father and sometimes withholds information from Costanza and his children.
The descriptions in this novel are evocative; the author captures Florence, Liguria, and New York City. Likewise, many of the characterizations in the novel are vivid. Unfortunately, early descriptions of Costanza are largely based on her physical attributes; she is “remarkable”, “spectacular”, and “striking.” An unacknowledged triangle develops between Costanza, Henry, and Henry’s son. Costanza, an intelligent, sensitive poet and translator, is diminished by her reduction to physicality in the thoughts of all the male characters. The egos and self-absorption of her two husbands and the surprisingly graphic sex scenes may make the novel uncomfortable for some readers.
Readers will ask themselves “What is missing?” upon opening this novel. The author does not leave the answer to misinterpretation. He quotes Mark Strand in an epigraph: “Wherever I am/I am what is missing.” This theme is prominently threaded throughout the novel. Costanza asks herself, “What was it with her that she missed all the darkest corners in the characters of the men who came into her life, the men she chose to love?”