Eden by Andrea Kleine

Eden BY Andrea Kleine. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.
The cover of Eden

Andrea Kleine’s novel opens with the confluence of two distinctly tabloid anxieties: divorce and kidnapping. Hope and her half-sister, Eden, latchkey kids of the 1990s, have grown up trekking back and forth between their home in Charlottesville and their father’s new place in the mountains. Both parents refuse to make the ninety-minute drive, so every other weekend the sisters take the Greyhound to the strip mall bus station where they bicker and study and wait for their father. On a Friday afternoon in the autumn of Hope’s freshman year of high school, he doesn’t show up. Eden, the older of the two, who “didn’t like being reminded that she had ever been a little girl,” decides not to use the pay phone to call for a ride. Eventually a pickup turns into the parking lot and a “skinny guy in jeans” gets out. “I’m Larry,” he says, a friend of your dad’s, he’s had car trouble and asked me to pick you up, remember when we met at your fourth birthday party? Eden says she remembers him and convinces Hope to climb up into the truck bed with her. They watch the road fall away as Larry drives them into the dark; “Eden would later say it was like watching the end of a movie.” No one thinks to look for them until Sunday.

We don’t learn what exactly happened to Eden and Hope until much later, but the unspecified horror of that weekend hangs over the rest of the novel. In the next scene, we are introduced to Hope, the book’s desultory heroine, now a thirty-five-year-old semi-failed playwright clinging to the precarious Manhattan sublet she moved into after dumping her long-term girlfriend. She hasn’t seen Eden in years and doesn’t know where to find her. She works a temp job, sort of, and when she learns her mother has died of cancer out in Oregon she forgets to cry until she remembers how expensive the Christmas flights will be. “I hated myself for being this age and still in this situation,” she thinks, wondering and not really wondering what has gone wrong in her life. Then she gets a letter from the District Attorney’s office: Larry is up for parole. The DA knows Hope saidshe wasn’t raped, and Eden refused to say anything, but he’s hopeful the sisters have more to share with twenty years’ distance. This dubious proposition spurs Hope to set off on the cross-country search for her sister that gives the novel its momentum.

Trauma, and its way of overwhelming all that surrounds it, poses distinct challenges to narrative. Because it is resolutely internal and unfalsifiable (who can determine whether pain is real but the sufferer?), narrative explorations of trauma tend to be voice-driven. Eden is the rare instance of a trauma novel that privileges plot over subjectivity. By concealing Hope’s memories of that weekend, Kleine attempts to create suspense from her search for resolution. The novel’s driving question, however, is familiar from other exemplars of the genre: how does one make sense of childhood trauma?The sisters play out two different possibilities. Hope, as nearly every other character in the novel mentions, appears so fixated on the past she can’t move forward with her life. The missing Eden, on the other hand, has made a hard break with her past, denying its importance and refusing to let victimhood define her.

Even before she disappeared, we learn, Eden had been intent on reinventing herself. Not long after the kidnapping, she fell in with a band of generic radicals whose inchoate anti-globalization politics only accentuate their countercultural charm. She eventually moved into a nearby commune, which, she impatiently explained to a teenage Hope, was not a “zoo” or a “tourist attraction for liberals who want to day-trip off the grid,” and therefore didn’t allow any visitors. “She said the whole purpose of living in an alternative community was to be intentionally alternative and not beholden to the outside world,” Hope laments, “and she included me as part of the outside world.” A few years later, shortly before leaving for college in New York, Hope showed up at their appointed meeting spot only to learn the commune had disbanded and Eden had already silently drifted away, deeper into the anonymity offered by a marginalized, pre-Internet existence.

Hope begins her search for her sister with a surprise visit to their father, a serial monogamist and failed writer described as “nervous” nearly every time he appears in the book. “He shifted gears and his fingers rubbed the knob, itching for a cigarette he stubbed out two decades ago,” she notices when he picks her up from the train. The appearance of his adult daughter, broke and apparently homeless, quickly triggers a meltdown. “I know the most horrible thing imaginable happened to you and Eden, but guess what?” he screams. “A lot of people have been through a lot worse and come out the other side.” Hope weathers this explosion without complaint, apparently inured to her father’s guilty conscience. He knows she’s there because of the DA, and urges her to let Eden go. “She’s a ghost,” who “lives on another planet,” and who “never came out of the woods.” As his mixed metaphors suggest, he really doesn’t know exactly what Eden is, except that she’s no longer his responsibility. His tirade ends with sputtered apologies, and Hope gets what she came for: The Camper, her father’s ancient VW bus she’ll need to make her trip.

At times the novel reads like a paint-by-numbers critique of the society Boomers built: mothers reject motherhood, divorce endangers children, people join communes as a way to avoid pain or responsibility. But the novel directs its animus less at the particular upheavals and failures of the ’60s than at the way that era allowed the pursuit of pleasure and personal fulfillment to trump any form of accountability. We discover that the girls’ father forgot to pick them up that fateful weekend because he was schmoozing at a book launch, hoping to drum up interest in his lapsed career; Hope recalls relying on Eden as a child because her mother was constantly working on her dissertation. In this light, Eden’s estrangement doesn’t punish her parents so much as embody their laissez-faire philosophy. Kleine implies that Eden’s disappearance, and their parents’ ineffectual reaction to the abduction, insidiously constitute Hope’s truer trauma. The weekend with Larry makes a kind of sense; Hope’s relationship with her sister does not.

Not far from her father’s house in Virginia lives Suriya, his first wife and Eden’s mother, who tired of being a wife and mother and left her family to hitchhike and travel around India. When Hope visits Suriya at her own commune, the older woman likens her abandonment of her maternal identity to Eden’s abandonment of her trauma. “I think Eden had a revelation similar to mine,” Suriya says. “I didn’t want to be a wife and mother. And Eden didn’t want to be Eden, the girl who all that happened to.” Suriya believes one is only defined by their past if they choose to be, and relationships tend to hinder, not enhance, personal growth. Like Hope’s father, she thinks Eden should be left alone.

Luce, another former partner of Hope’s father, is similarly repelled by both motherhood and intimacy writ large. She was a fixture of Hope and Eden’s lives for much of their childhoods, until she became overwhelmed by the emotional neediness of their father in the aftermath of the abduction. She credits the kidnapping with revealing her own weakness to her. “I couldn’t have survived what happened to you,” she tells Hope. “You were the only one who was strong enough. I don’t think Eden was.”

Recounted in tidy, straightforward flashbacks that punctuate the novel’s action, the kidnapping is walled off both from the adult Hope’s consciousness and the rest of the novel, accessible only as a plot device. None of the event’s details ever come into question or seep into Hope’s present-day ruminations. Except for the occasional gap, Hope remembers that hellish weekend in lucid detail. After picking the girls up, Larry takes them to his house, where a “mirror with Budweiser etched into it hung above the fireplace,” and there’s “a china cabinet that fit into a corner and was filled with porcelain Disney figurines.” The girls lose consciousness, seemingly drugged by their captor, and wake up tied to trees in the forest, stripped down and freezing. Hope catches sight of Eden, then of Larry, trundling through the woods with a cigarette and a bottle of soda that explodes all over his pants. Eventually we learn that she rescues her big sister, dragging her from the truck bed and forcing her to run.

This revelation of Hope’s heroism provides the novel’s emotional climax, and seems to be the only explanation for Eden’s disappearance. “Eden couldn’t stand being rescued,” as her former commune-dwelling boyfriend tells Hope. “She didn’t need my rescuing. But she needed yours that day in the woods. And she couldn’t live with that.” Kleine has a tendency of writing secondary characters as villains and protagonists as innocents. Without enough insight into Eden, her unintelligible cruelty seems designed only to flatter Hope and accentuate her inherent goodness. This flatness makes Hope an unsatisfying protagonist: Already in the right and lacking internal conflict, her only problem seems to be other people.

Hope finds a doctor who knows a guy who knows a guy, and finally tracks down Eden. She’s been living in Santa Cruz and shows up to meet Hope in sunglasses and cowboy boots. Incredibly, she’s the same standoffish teenager Hope remembers, impassive and unmoved by news of Hope’s mother’s death or of Larry’s possible release. “You only want to have something to do with me if it has something to do with our past,” Eden says before leaving again. The plot fizzles just in time for a breakthrough. Larry’s denied parole, and Hope makes up with her father. “My accumulated menagerie of people was supposed to put things back together for me, tell me which way to go,” she thinks. Like trauma itself, Eden resists interpretation, leaving Hope without insight or revelation. She forces one anyway, sitting down on the beach to write a play about possibility. At least her trauma was good for something.

Jordan Larson is a writer in New York.