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Helplessby Barbara Gowdy
Synopses & Reviews
From the internationally acclaimed author of The White Bone and The Romantic, a haunting and suspenseful novel of abduction and obsessive love.
Nine-year-old Rachel Fox has the face of an angel, a heart-stopping luminosity that strikes all who meet her. Her single mother, Celia, working at a video store by day and a piano bar by night, is not always around to shield her daughter from the attention — both benign and sinister — that her beauty draws. Attention from model agencies, for example, or from Ron, a small-appliance repairman who, having seen Rachel once, is driven to see her again and again.
When a summer blackout plunges the city into darkness and confusion, Rachel is taken from her home. A full-scale search begins, but days pass with no solid clues, only a phone call Celia receives from a woman whose voice she has heard before but cannot place. And as Celia fights her terror and Rachel starts to trust in her abductor's kindness, the only other person who knows where she is wavers between loyalty to the captor and saving the child. Will Rachel be found before her abductor's urge to protect and cherish turns to something altogether less innocent?
Tapping into the fear that lies just below the surface of contemporary city life, Barbara Gowdy draws on her trademark empathy and precision to create a portrait of love at its most consuming and ambiguous and to uncover the volatile point at which desire gives way to the unthinkable.
"Love comes up against obsession in Gowdy's seventh novel (following The Romantic), and the results are at times chilling, but not always believable. Single mother Celia works two jobs and is often forced to bring nine-year-old Rachel along to her nighttime gigs at a piano bar. Much to Celia's dismay, men are already drawn to biracial Rachel's exotic beauty, and she reluctantly turns down a lucrative modeling contract for the girl. Yet she's unaware that appliance repairman Ron Clarkson has an unhealthy fascination with Rachel that's escalating. Convinced that Celia is not a worthy parent for Rachel, Ron abducts the girl, soon involving his needy girlfriend, Nancy, and igniting an extensive investigation. Although set in Toronto's urban Cabbagetown neighborhood, the atmosphere feels smalltown insular and relies a bit too much on coincidental acquaintances to feel like a city setting. The kidnap plot is, for Gowdy, surprisingly conventional, but frequent glimpses into the childhoods of Ron, Nancy and Celia add depth, revealing the characters' motivations and inviting contemplation of what constitutes appropriate love toward a child. Ron remains too warped to be remotely sympathetic; more compelling are Nancy's conflicted loyalties and Celia's occasional brutal reflections on the sometimes greedy, possessive love between parent and child — a love not unlike obsession." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"One hot summer night, a blackout douses Toronto in darkness. The lights come back up on a nightmare for Celia Fox, a single working mother. What unfolds during the search for her 9-year-old daughter, Rachel, snatched by a repairman with murky motives, occupies most of Barbara Gowdy's new novel, which probes the nature of love, obsession and the capacity for self-deception. Celia... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and Rachel survive on their landlord's leniency and on Celia's earnings as a piano-bar singer and video-store clerk. If Gowdy crudely underscores the Foxes' down-and-out existence, she also convincingly shows how their mutual reliance has forged a fierce mother-daughter bond. Rachel is precocious because she has to be. She still entertains herself by drawing with crayons yet knows better than to say her mother's haircut makes her look bald. Celia is utterly devoted to her daughter but notices that Rachel already attracts the attention of men in a way that Celia never has. She monitors herself for signs of jealousy and, after the kidnapping, admits in her anguish that, when she used to see Rachel across a room or on the school playground, her first thought was of possession: 'Mine, she's mine. It isn't just amazement. Something miserly and famished runs underneath.' Unfortunately, the focus soon shifts from this engaging and complicated relationship to the internal dilemma of Rachel's abductor, Ron, as he struggles to reconcile his pedophiliac impulses with his conviction that he has confined her in his basement for her own good. In this age of child-predator hysteria, Gowdy's daring to render Ron in empathetic shades of gray is intriguing, but his moments of self-reflection seem delivered from an analyst's couch, not a haunted psyche. 'Were his feelings those of a father, a protector,' he muses, 'or was he romanticizing his lust?' Flashbacks to troubling incidents in his childhood heighten our apprehension about Rachel's future but shed little light on Ron's motives. 'Helpless' hurtles toward its conclusion, but obsession with obsession makes for a curiously uninflected story. The lives of Ron and his waitress girlfriend, who strains to believe in his good intentions, don't encompass much beyond their jobs and the human objects of their desires. Celia becomes the voice of every parent's fears, but her character fades from view. Only Rachel remains entirely real, caught up in her subterranean routine of childish activities. Above, the whims of others decide her fate. Sarah L. Courteau is literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly." Reviewed by Elizabeth StroutKevin O'DonnellJabari AsimRon CharlesSarah L. Courteau, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A]bsorbing reading." Booklist
"[A] nail-biting tale of suspense, spells extra work for manicurists everywhere. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"An assured, perceptive, deftly delivered story." Kirkus Reviews
"Helpless will not disappoint any of [Gowdy's] fans and will likely win her some new ones...brilliant." Edmonton Journal
"Gowdy has created a book that stands out among an already unique and powerful body of work." Montreal Gazette
"Gowdy consistently zeros in on strange minds, on propositions of difference in consciousness, and then resolve them through a kind of sympathetic intervention." The Globe and Mail
Rachel is a nine-year-old girl whose luminous beauty inspires every form of admiration. One summer night, when a summer blackout plunges the city into darkness and confusion, her most fervent admirer--a middle-aged appliance repairman named Ron--abducts her from her home. Set over the next two weeks, Helpless moves between the perspectives of Rachel, her mother, Celia, and Ron, whose feelings for Rachel grow less innocent by the day. Tapping into the fear that resides just below the surface of contemporary city life, Helpless is a "brilliantly realized thriller about every parent's nightmare" (Calgary Herald).
In this haunting and suspenseful novel of abduction and obsessive love, Gowdy draws on her trademark empathy to create a portrait of love at its most consuming and ambiguous to uncover the volatile point at which desire gives way to the unthinkable.
About the Author
Barbara Gowdy is the author of five previous books, including most recently The White Bone and The Romantic. Her fiction has been published in more than twenty countries. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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