What Is Missing

  • Review
By – February 17, 2020

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?”

Inger Saphire-Bern­stein is a health pol­i­cy pro­fes­sion­al with exten­sive expe­ri­ence across mul­ti­ple health care deliv­ery set­tings and the insur­ance indus­try. She has pub­lished a num­ber of arti­cles and papers in the health pol­i­cy field.

Discussion Questions