Following the success of Wallcreeper—which she wrote in four days—and with her much ballyhooed relationship with Jonathan Franzen, one can’t avoid praise for—or at least reviews of—Mislaid, Nell Zink’s highly acclaimed second novel. Taking a cue from the brutally honest Zink, who said Franzen’s Freedom was “stodgy” and described Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad as “in one ear and out the other,” I must admit that I did not find Mislaid “brilliantly entertaining,” which is how The Guardian described it.
The action begins in 1966 at Stillwater College in Virginia, when Peggy, a lesbian with literary aspirations, has an affair with Lee, a gay, pretentious, blue-blooded poet who teaches at the college and who commutes via canoe from a home just across a lake from the college. This unlikely beginning definitely has its moments, and Zink’s writing shines as the relationship builds. Eventually Peggy becomes pregnant, they marry, have another child, and the relationship goes spectacularly belly-up. Fearing that Lee will have her committed, Peggy abandons their adolescent son and flees with their three-year-old daughter, giving her the identity of a dead African-American girl while taking on the persona of a black single mother. As the children grow up, they must each contend with their parent’s bizarre behavior—the son, Byrdie, deals with his father’s extravagant lifestyle while “Karen” lives in abject poverty in a world constructed on a tissue of lies.
The children eventually meet when both attend University of Virginia—Karen on a “minority” scholarship—and are caught up in an on-campus scandal and end up in court in an ending that feels rushed and contrived. Given all the hype and with the potential of the pulled-from-the-headlines issues of gender, racial, and sexual identity, I came away disappointed and feeling that Zink had missed an opportunity to use her talents to create something truly memorable.