At the start of Patrick Somerville's magical debut novel, a very pregnant Marissa Bishop makes a request. In the short time before her first baby is due, Marissa would like her husband, Matt, to go find the cradle in which her mother, Caroline, once rocked her.
Caroline walked out on her husband and daughter when Marissa was a teenager. Ten days afterward and not coincidentally, a burglar emptied the house of everything Caroline wanted to take. Out came the good stuff, cradle and all.
"You can find anything," Marissa tells her husband encouragingly.
Yes, Matt has the persistence for this odd assignment. But it will send him roaming through unexpected regions of the Midwest and of the heart.
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Somerville has the chops to keep this story from softening into the mush suggested by his premise. As the jacket copy for "The Cradle" puts it, during the search, "Matt makes a discovery that will forever change Marissa's life, and faces a decision that will challenge everything he has ever known."
How often have you read this kind of synopsis? How wearyingly do track-down-a-secret novels conform to this pattern?
And how reflexively do authors crosscut, as Somerville does, between two seemingly unrelated stories that turn out to be closely linked?
Somerville uses even that creaky tactic to good effect. In a streamlined 200-page novel, he tells an endearing story full of genuinely surprising turns. And while Matt is buffeted by fortune, there's no Gump or Garp in him. Matt is deeply serious about what first sounded like a purely capricious mission.
The primary focus of "The Cradle" is clear: This is a book about family ties, some ruptured, some restored. And Matt understands what his wife is really seeking. She does not want her new family to fall apart the way her old one did.
The cradle will be her talisman. So what if that cradle is hardly an heirloom? So what if it came into Marissa's family when her grandmother bought it at a yard sale?
"There's another link," Marissa insists. "Her hauling it home that day." Matt loves his wife too much to do anything but agree.
So off he goes, away from Milwaukee and toward anyone who may cast light on Caroline's whereabouts. His first stop, on the trail of Caroline's half-sister: a house where "the yard gave off few signs of interested human control" and a cat sits staring out the window.
This part of "The Cradle" takes place in 1997. Interspersed sections involve a woman named Renee and take place a decade later. Renee and her husband, Bill, have a 19-year-old son who is leaving for Iraq.
"Their son was going to war," Somerville writes. "This was the week he would disappear and become an idea."
When Renee turns on a television, she is spooked by the sight of a fire at a chemical plant in Milwaukee. By not-quite-coincidence, it's the plant where Matt worked in 1997.
Renee has envisioned terrible, fiery scenes before. Now she relives that past. On a parallel track, the same type of thing happens to Matt. Both he and Renee are jarringly reminded of long-buried, long-repressed family suffering.
It would be better to recommend "The Cradle," a deeply gratifying modern fable, than to reveal too much about its plot. Leave it at this: Matt does find the cradle eventually, but he makes other discoveries that count for much more.
And all of this sleight of hand is executed with the light, graceful touch that makes Somerville, also the author of a short story collection ("Trouble"), someone to watch.