In a Stunning Debut, Love is Still the Answer
"To be looked for is to matter," reflects Joy, the 19-year-old narrator of Laura van den Berg's spellbinding first novel, Find Me.
As in the author's story collections, the understated language of Find Me
transfixes the reader, paving the way for a no holds-barred exploration of vulnerable if self-reliant characters. Everyone in this book, Joy in particular, is damaged but searching—for connection, for meaning, to be truly seen.
The novel opens at the Hospital, where Joy and 74 others are held in isolation. They're thought to be immune to "the sickness," a little-understood disease that's on pace to kill more than half a million Americans. The sickness starts with silver blisters and forgetfulness. The brain deteriorates quickly. It's always fatal.
Joy and other patients recite miscellaneous obscure facts to reassure themselves they can still remember and are relieved when they can recall the life-span of a hummingbird or even their own names. But while Joy's worst fear is memory loss, that telltale symptom, there's plenty in her past she'd like to forget.
Abandoned as an infant, Joy grew up in a series of foster and group homes. She shared one of them with Marcus, a boy she grew to love, who wore masks to hide his scarred face and possessed an uncanny ability to know things he shouldn't. Themes of memory and identity unite Joy's past and the current epidemic. Even after she leaves, she feels as if there's a part of her that "will never be anything but locked up." But joy is destined to escape and embark on her own search: fort he mother who deserted her.
Find Me is crafted to be consumed in small sips, though with a novel so full of mystery and surprise, the temptation is to gulp. Chapters are broken into short sections that jump between Joy's rocky adolescence and the present, yet feel rich and immersive.
The book's second act is pleasurably unpredictable as we encounter oddball characters and bizarre situations: No Name is a guy Joy robs hotel rooms with after escaping the Hospital; Darcie wears angel wings made of feathers and talks to her dead mother in a basement tunnel. But here we also feel van den Berg digging deeper, exploring all the possibilities of the novel form, delivering a mesmerizing and emotional experience that invites readers to, like Joy, savor life.