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.)
"[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
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.
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).
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. How do the structure and multiple points of view in the story enhance the atmosphere of anxiety and apprehension? Discuss the exquisite way in which the author builds tension by accelerating and slowing down the pace of the narrative.
2. Rachel is virtually a fatherless child. How does that affect the way she relates to Ron?
3. What has Mika's presence taught Rachel about men? Is he a father figure? What are his feelings toward Rachel?
4. How do Ron's and Nancy's motives for keeping Rachel differ? How much does Nancy understand Ron? How does her desperation to avoid being alone contribute to her behavior? Discuss Nancy's reaction to the situation.
5. What role does "beauty" play in the novel?
6. Discuss Rachel's relationship with her mother. Is Celia a bad mother? Did she neglect or fail to protect her daughter? How has being a single mother produced a nine-year old girl who is a curious mixture of maturity and innocence? Why does Celia feel a selfishness regarding her love for her daughter?
7. Discuss the title, Helpless, and to what and whom it refers in the novel. Note Nancy's description of "helpless fury" (page 133).
8. How much does Rachel understand about the danger of her situation? Does that change as the days pass? When Rachel leaves the house while Ron is distracted, why doesn't she go for help?
9. What is the significance of the day Ron chooses to kidnap Rachel (his birthday, the anniversary of his mother's death . . .)?
10. Most of the characters are victims of some abuse. How has this brought them together? Many of them feel guilty. Discuss each character and what the source of their guilt might be.
11. Ron thinks of his act as an "immaculate abduction." Discuss this term. At what point and why does Ron begin to feel he wants to take credit and let the public know what he has accomplished?
12. What are the final choices made by each character and how does that affect the outcome of the novel? Was this the expected resolution? How else might Gowdy have concluded her novel?