Songs for the Missing: A Novel

( 127 )


Returning again to the theme of working-class people and their wrenching concerns, Songs for the Missing begins with the suspenseful pace of a thriller, following an Ohio community's efforts to locate a young woman who has gone missing. It soon deepens into an affecting portrait of a family trying desperately to hold onto itself and the memory of a daughter whose return becomes increasingly unlikely. Stark and honest, this is an intimate account of what happens behind the ...

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Songs for the Missing: A Novel

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Returning again to the theme of working-class people and their wrenching concerns, Songs for the Missing begins with the suspenseful pace of a thriller, following an Ohio community's efforts to locate a young woman who has gone missing. It soon deepens into an affecting portrait of a family trying desperately to hold onto itself and the memory of a daughter whose return becomes increasingly unlikely. Stark and honest, this is an intimate account of what happens behind the headlines of a very American tragedy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

O'Nan proves that uncertainty can be the worst punishment of all in this unflinching look at an unraveling family. In the small town of Kingsville, Ohio, 18-year-old Kim Larsen-popular and bound for college in the fall-disappears on her way to work one afternoon. Not until the next morning do her parents, Ed and Fran, and 15-year-old sister, Lindsay, realize Kim is missing. The lead detective on the case tells the Larsens that since Kim is an adult, she could, if the police find her, ask that the police not disclose her location to her parents. When Kim's car later turns up in nearby Sandusky, Ed, desperate to help, joins the official search. Meanwhile, Fran stays home putting all her energy into community fund-raisers, and Lindsay struggles to maintain a normal life. Through shifting points of view, chiefly those of the shell-shocked parents and the moody Lindsay, O'Nan raises the suspense while conveying the sheer torture of what it's like not to know what has happened to a loved one. When-if ever-do you stop looking? 6-city author tour. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

O'Nan (Last Night at the Lobster) here captures the emotional upheaval the disappearance of a young girl inflicts on her family and friends, writing with forceful clarity of their anxiety, mingled hope and fear, depression, anger, nostalgia, and sense of loss. Actress/singer/narrator Emily Janice Card (Special Topics in Calamity Physics) gives a fine performance; her delivery of the teenage dialog is especially successful. Recommended for all audio collections. [Audio clip available through; the Viking hc was recommended "for most public libraries," LJ8/08.-Ed.]
—Joanna M. Burkhardt

Kirkus Reviews
Taut prose and matter-of-fact detail enrich this compelling portrait of teenage life in small-town Ohio, as the disappearance of a popular girl on the cusp of leaving home for college changes the communal dynamic of family and friends. The latest from O'Nan (Last Night at the Lobster, 2007, etc.) initially reads like a whodunit, but who or why become less important than the character of the vanished Kim Larsen from the differing memories of those who knew her best-or thought they did-and the ways in which Kim's disappearance allows all sorts of revelations to come to light. The opening chapter is the only one that views Kim's life from her own perspective: the job she tolerates, the little sister who occasionally annoys her, the parents whose tension between them sometimes rises to the surface, the friends with whom she shares routines and some confidences, the boyfriend with whom she isn't serious enough to stay with past the summer. She anticipates college as an escape from the town where "every night they fought a war against boredom and lost," yet she's understandably apprehensive about living away from home. Then she disappears, putting her parents into a panic, forcing her friends to decide which secrets to reveal, uniting the community in its attempts to aid the search and offer support to the family. Will Kim's disappearance end her parents' marriage or make it stronger? Is there a logical explanation, a motive, or is this simply evidence of "the world's incoherence"? Though the author sustains narrative momentum through the conventions of the police procedural (with chapter headings such as "Description of the Person, When Last Seen" and "Known Whereabouts"), ultimately the novelis less about a possible crime than about the interconnections of small-town life. "The problem was that everything was connected," thinks one of Kim's friends. "One lie covered another, which covered a third, which rested against a fourth. It all went back to Kingsville being so goddamn small."A novel in which every word rings true. Agent: David Gernert/The Gernert Company
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143116028
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/25/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 626,363
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Stewart O'Nan
Stewart O’Nan has published nine previous novels that include The Good Wife, Everyday People, and A Prayer for the Dying, a book of short stories In the Walled City, and four works of non-fiction that include the bestselling book he co-authored with Stephen King about the Red Sox Faithful. O’Nan’s novel Snow Angels has been made into a movie by Warner Independent starring Kate Beckinsale and was released in March of 2008. He is a huge Red Sox and Pirates fan and lives in Avon, CT with his wife.


Stewart O'Nan grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, addicted to cartoons, horror comics, Tarzan, science fiction, movies, TV, and garage punk. He studied aerospace engineering at Boston University, where he developed more rarified tastes (Camus, Coltrane, and the Beats), along with a lifelong obsession with the Boston Red Sox. After graduation, he worked as a test engineer for Grumman Aerospace in Long Island, devoting every spare moment he could find to writing. Then, with the encouragement of his wife, he enrolled in Cornell University to pursue a master's degree.

By the time O'Nan had finished graduate school, a few of his short stories had begun to attract some attention. He moved his family west and taught at the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of New Mexico. Then, in 1993, he hit pay dirt when his short story collection, In the Walled City, won the Drue Heinz Prize for Short Fiction. A year later, his first novel, Snow Angels, was awarded a Pirate's Alley William Faulkner Prize. Since then, he has gone on to forge a distinguished literary career. A self-described "fiction-writing machine," the multi-award-winning O'Nan averages a book a year. In 1996, Granta named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists.

Although critics try to shoehorn his fiction into the horror genre, O'Nan's writing is far too complex and nuanced to permit such blatant categorization. True, his stories are suffused with trauma and tragedy, and his characters react unpredictably to the stress of terrible events; but the violence in O'Nan's fiction owes as much to Flannery O'Connor as to Stephen King -- two authors he acknowledges as important influences.

In addition to his novels, the prolific O'Nan has written a nonfiction account of the notorious 1944 Hartford Circus Fire. He is also co-author with fellow Bo-Sox fan Stephen King of Faithful, a chronicle of the team's legendary 2004 season.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Stewart O'Nan shared some fun and fascinating facts about himself:

"Growing up, I delivered the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to David McCullough's, Annie Dillard's and Nathaniel Philbrick's houses. The Philbricks tipped you a dime to put it in their screen door."

"The first novels I read with rapt fascination were Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan series -- coverless, bought for a dime apiece at a Cub Scout rummage sale."

"Back in the early '80s, when I'd just begun to read seriously, I met Doris Lessing at the Kenmore Square Barnes & Noble before her very first game at Fenway Park. She seemed genuinely excited, and apprehensive, as if she might be asked to play."

"The library is still my favorite place in the world."

"I'd rather be reading than doing anything else, including writing."

"I'm an obsessive collector -- coins, books, records, baseball cards."

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    1. Also Known As:
      James Coltrane
    2. Hometown:
      Avon, CT
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 4, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pittsburgh, PA
    1. Education:
      B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Praise for Songs for the Missing

A Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Best Book of 2008

“This is a novel about loss and healing; a novel that acknowledges the depth of loss and the limits of healing. . . . You could call this novel many things. You could call it a mystery. You could call it a thriller. You could even call it a self-help book, for reading it slowly and carefully causes one to consider love and sorrow in a much larger context than simply that of this well-paced tale. O’Nan has a remarkable ability to pinpoint the ways in which hope and suffering are intertwined. . . . This is a fine, absorbing book. It’s easy to imagine that O’Nan is on a kind of mission to restore a simple, true sense of humanity to the novel: a worthy goal, indeed.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Some books should come with warnings. That’s not a complaint, at least in the case of Stewart O’Nan’s haunting novel Songs for the Missing, which kept me up most of the night. . . . O’Nan, a former aviation engineer, describes emotional roller coasters in prose that’s remarkably taut and precise.”

—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

Songs for the Missing has a plot that is deceptively easy to summarize, but the book has a mood so subtle that only first-rate fiction can evoke it. . . . As we read, we, too, are changed, and in ways we cannot even understand. . . . It’s the sort of experience that reveals why we read in the first place, knowing that the sadness we find inside a book mirrors the sadness always within reach.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“Art, like athletics, is all about making it look easy. That’s the special magic behind the work of Stewart O’Nan, a novelist who brings his uncommon gifts to the task of rendering the common world. He writes with quiet precision about people we all know, people in regular jobs with lives we can all recognize, and the result is work that shimmers with verisimilitude. You can forget, for long stretches, that you’re reading fiction, because it feels as if you’re eavesdropping on somebody’s cell phone conversation on the bus. His writing is that true.”

—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune

“Too often the face on the milk carton becomes a dimensionless symbol, but by allowing his cast of characters to grow and change and to find their real selves, O’Nan restores humanity even among those whose fate remains in suspended animation.”

Los Angeles Times

“Stewart O’Nan is a daredevil. . . . In scene after scene, these spare descriptions will make you catch your breath. . . . The world that O’Nan captures thwarts our expectations for cathartic tragedy or gleeful celebration, which makes the story even more devastating.”

The Washington Post

“The book’s emotional power is undeniable, as each character grieves for Kim, wanting her disappearance to mean something beyond ‘the world’s incoherence.’ In the midst of the search, they elegiacally discover a little of what has been missing among themselves.”

—Don Lee, The Boston Globe

“O’Nan also sensitively observes the fraying and deepening of relationships during trauma and the unexpected ways it can change people.”

The Seattle Times

“At the heart of Stewart O’Nan’s powerful fiction is his compassion for ordinary people. . . . With his characteristic spare prose style and his impressively precise use of detail, O’Nan reflects and illuminates life in Kingsville. His major achievement, however, is the intensity of the empathy he conveys to readers for all who knew Kim Larsen.”

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Songs for the Missing is anything but an easy read, but it’s a spectacular one. And, like most of O’Nan’s work, one that resolutely draws the reader in and refuses to let go.”

The Denver Post

“Chilling and honest . . . Like all great writers, O’Nan possesses the ability to place the reader squarely inside the thoughts of his characters. In Songs for the Missing it may be an ultimately nightmarish place no parent, sibling or friend ever wants to be. But you won’t regret that O’Nan put you there.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“O’Nan’s novel is an elegant elegy: He has plumbed the depth of the horror no one ever wants to experience, and done it with sympathy, honesty and respect.”

The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

“Choosing to avoid the what, who and why of Kim’s disappearance, Mr. O’Nan instead paints a nuanced portrait of how people are changed by tragic events and the far-reaching effect a person’s disappearance has on their family and community. Songs for the Missing is an elegantly crafted, memorable book that resonates with sadness.”

The Economist

“O’Nan writes with great sympathy and perceptiveness, and he really captures the texture of working-class American lives.”


“Riveting . . . Songs for the Missing is an engaging and often excruciating read; it makes vivid our most dreadful thoughts, forcing us to contemplate the kind of thing we like to believe only happens elsewhere. O’Nan uses the filter of fiction along with his razor sharp, unerring eye for local detail to render our darkest and most disturbing nightmares all too real.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Taut prose and matter-of-fact detail enrich this compelling portrait of teenage life in small-town Ohio. . . . Though the author sustains narrative momentum through the conventions of the police procedural, ultimately the novel is less about a possible crime than about the interconnections of small-town life. ‘The problem was that everything was connected,’ thinks one of Kim’s friends. ‘One lie covered another, which covered a third, which rested against a fourth. It all went back to Kingsville being so goddamn small.’ a novel in which every word rings true.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“O’Nan proves that uncertainty can be the worst punishment of all in this unflinching look at an unraveling family. Through shifting points of view . . . O’Nan raises the suspense while conveying the sheer torture of what it’s like not to know what has happened to a loved one. When—if ever—do you stop looking?”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“O’Nan’s writing is undeniably skillful. . . . The pacing is spotless.”

The Miami Herald

“What begins as a procedural turns into something more interesting: a mosaic-mirror reflection of the small town that mourns her loss.”


“A page-turner that illustrates the unsettling idea that sometimes answers only raise more questions.”

Marie Claire

Songs for the Missing is the kind of book that makes you wish your flight were longer. . . . After hooking readers with the fact-paced opening, Mr. O’Nan edges away from the easy payoffs of the thriller genre. He resists the clichés of closure and triumph over adversity. Instead, he gives the reader more ordinary satisfaction of characters who confront tragedy and doggedly endure.”

The Dallas Morning News

“It’s a story as familiar as a photo on a milk carton, as unimaginable as death. It’s also a situation that has been the basis for countless tear-jerking and predictable movies and TV episodes. Not in this novel; Songs for the Missing has an emotional austerity and courage that make it far more moving. . . . One of the great strengths is that very little of what happens then is what you might expect—and yet it rings entirely, heartbreakingly true.”

St. Petersburg Times

“O’Nan’s use of details . . . give a believable, behind-the-scenes glimpse of what a grieving family must endure. . . . A nuanced portrait.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“The characters he creates are so lifelike that one tends to forget they are fictional. . . . Many of O’Nan’s books contain a dark element, and Songs for the Missing is one of the most haunting. The writing, as always, is consistently beautiful.”

The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg)

“O’Nan shifts his point of view . . . and hits each with pointillist accuracy, creating complex portraits of each individual as well as the shifting mood of the town itself. Most impressive, however, is the precision with which O’Nan conveys the transformation of a family’s fresh terror into a kind of quotidian torture. . . . O’Nan creates his narrative tension out of the relationships between his multilayered characters. There is none of the easy sensationalism here that his subject might suggest and not a single wasted sentence. Powerful, honest and at times elegiac, this absorbing and masterfully written novel is not to be missed.”

Shelf Awareness

“Both profound and profoundly beautiful. A haunting meditation on the power of those we lose, its emotional resonance defies description. Like most of Stewart O’Nan’s work, my ultimate response was the highest praise one writer can pay another: envy. I so dearly wish I’d written it.”

—Dennis Lehane

“Stewart O’Nan has done the seemingly impossible—taken a story with tabloid potential and not just avoided the pitfalls of melodrama and unearned grace but written a novel that is singularly insightful, beautifully modulated, and genuinely moving. It’s also very suspenseful. I read it quickly but will remember it for a very long time.”

—Ann Packer



Stewart O’Nan is the author of fourteen novels, including The Odds; Emily, Alone; and Last Night at the Lobster, as well as several works of nonfiction, including, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his family.



Last Night at the Lobster
The Good Wife
The Night Country
Wish You Were Here
Everyday People
A Prayer for the Dying
A World Away
The Speed Queen
The Names of the Dead
Snow Angels
In the Walled City


Faithful (with Stephen King)
The Circus Fire
The Vietnam Reader (editor)
On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner (editor)



Table of Contents

Praise for Songs for the Missing

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright Page




Description of the Person, When Last Seen

Known Whereabouts



Another Kind of Lie

Nonfamily Abduction Sample

The Right to Disappear

Answers to Name

Baby Steps


Crime Stoppers

Hello, My Name Is

Stop, Look & Listen

The Motorist’s Prayer

The Loser’s Bracket

Follow Me

The Last Time

The Long Weekend

Head Check

Where She Was

Immediate Occupancy

The Advanced Stages


Halftime Entertainment

Wish List

America’s Most Wanted

Being the Cup

Last Summer

Catch and Release

A Break

The Killer Next Door

Article L02-37

The Grateful Parents

There’s No Place Like Home



For Trudy and Caitlin and Stephen

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
and wake up where the clouds are far
behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
away above the chimney tops
that’s where you’ll find me

Description of the Person, When Last Seen

July, 2005. It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow. The last summer, the best summer, the summer they’d dreamed of since eighth grade, the high and pride of being seniors lingering, an extension of their best year. She and Nina and Elise, the Three Amigos. In the fall they were gone, off to college, where she hoped, by a long and steady effort, she might become someone else, a private, independent person, someone not from Kingsville at all.

The sins of the Midwest: flatness, emptiness, a necessary acceptance of the familiar. Where is the romance in being buried alive? In growing old?

She did not hate the town, as, years later, her sister would tell one lover. Not Kim, not the good daughter. She loved the lake, how on a clear day you could see all the way to Canada from the bluffs. She loved the river, winding hidden in its mossy gorge of shale down to the harbor. She even loved the slumping Victorian mansions along Grandview her father was always trying to sell, and the sandstone churches downtown, and the stainless steel diner across from the post office. She was just eighteen.

At the Conoco, on break, she liked to cross the lot and then the on-ramp and stand at the low rail of the overpass, French-inhaling menthols in the dark as traffic whipped past below, taillights shooting west into the future. Toledo was three hours away, on the far side of Cleveland, far enough to be another country. Trucks lit like spaceships shuddered under her feet, dragging their own hot wind, their trailers full of unknown cargo. Slowly, night by night, the dream of leaving was coming true—with her family’s blessing, their very highest hopes. She could not regret it. She could only be grateful.

Inside, the a/c was cranked so high she wore a T-shirt under her uniform. They poached old nametags they found in the junk drawer under the register. She was Angie, Nina was Sam. They spun on their stools and watched the monitors, punching in the pump numbers and making change. They read heavy, insane fashion magazines and called around to see what was going on later—even though they were on camera too—and fought over whose turn it was to refill the nacho pot. Her timecard was in its slot, the clock beside it chunking with every minute, a record of her steadiness. She’d worked seven days a week since graduation and hadn’t missed a shift. Later the police would call this strict pattern a contributing factor. Secretly she was proud of it. She’d never been so determined. She’d never had a reason before.

The Conoco was an oasis of light, drawing cars off the highway like the muffleheads that fluttered against the windows. Drivers came in squinting and rubbing their necks, stopping on the mat inside the door as if this was all new to them, and too much, the bright aisles of candies and chips overloading their brains so they couldn’t read the sign directly in front of them.

They blinked at her, apologetic. “Where are the—?”

“Straight back.”

Fifty, a hundred times a night. She pointed her whole arm like a ghost.

“It’s true,” Nina said. “The more you drive, the dumber you get.”

“Thank you, thank you, Sam I Am.”

The living dead had bad breath. They bought coffee and soda and water, cigarettes and gum, Tootsie Pops and jerky, anything to get them to the next stop. In line they nodded their heads and mouthed the lyrics to the dinosaur pop that played endlessly inside and out, a fiendish commercial-free satellite feed pieced together, it seemed, by U2 and the Doobie Brothers. They paid double what they would at the Giant Eagle and were grateful when she took a penny from the little dish to cover them.

“Thanks a lot, Angie.”

“Thanks a lot, Angie,” Nina mocked, acting retarded, nuzzling her and flicking her tongue near her ear.

“Eww. Did you smell him?”

“He wanted to pet you and hug you and love you.”

“No, that’s you.”

“Don’t tell Hinch.”

“Too late.”

The creepiest were the old guys who bought condoms and wanted to joke about it like they were on the same team. There was a regular from down the county Nina christened Fat Joe-Bob who must have weighed three hundred pounds and wore a chunky gold chain and the same black Steeler sweatpants year-round.

“I don’t think he actually uses them,” Nina said. “You know, the normal way?”

“Maybe he’s married.”

“Ow, my eyes!” Nina said, covering them. “I’m not supposed to get fatfuck in them.”

Eight hours in a freezing glass box. Even Nina couldn’t make it go fast enough.

Their customers weren’t all strangers. Friends and classmates visited, sliding their fake IDs across the counter for them to inspect. Nina thought it was funny that Kim felt guilty, since they both had their own. For Kim it wasn’t the fear of getting busted so much as the feeling she was being taken advantage of, but hours later, when they caught up with their friends again, she drank her fair share of beers and was thankful she didn’t have to pay for them.

Every night they fought a war against boredom and lost. She thought their bodies should have adapted to swing shift after a whole month. Nina thought it had something to do with the fluorescents, the flat, shadowless wash of light that brought out the veins in their hands, their palms splotchy as raw hamburger. It was like living under water, two captured mermaids displayed in a tank.

And then, with half an hour left, they rallied, as if, the day nearly done, they were just now waking up. They wiped down the counters by the Icee machine and the microwave and restocked the coffee station, getting the place ready to hand over to Doug-o and Kevin. Whose turn was it to do the men’s room?

From there it was like a countdown. They took turns fixing their makeup and brushing their hair in the dinged steel mirror of the women’s room while the other manned the front. When graveyard punched in they hung up their tops—“’night, Angie” “’night, Sam”—then headed for their getaway cars, parked side by side.

Everyone’s schedule was different. In town Elise had already tipped out at Pape’s while J.P. was helping close the Giant Eagle. Hinch and Marnie still had another hour to go at the DQ, so they met there. It was convenient. They could leave their cars in the lot, backed up against the cemetery. The sheriff lived right across the road; no one would bother them.

Her new curfew was two o’clock, a compromise neither side liked. Her mother worked in the emergency room and thought everyone was going to die in a car crash. Her father was calmer, framing his argument in terms of insurance premiums. She needed to remember (as if she could forget), she was still living under their roof.

Part of it was J.P., who was new, and laid-back, into frisbee and hanging out, not her usual confident jock. His mother had raised him by herself, another mark against him. It didn’t help that they lived back behind the harbor in the same neighborhood her parents had fled a dozen years ago, and that he drove a crappy Cavalier and had hair down to his shoulders. Her mother blamed J.P. for Kim’s tattoo, even though he was the one squeamish about needles. Her parents didn’t believe her when she said he was harmless, and actually very sweet. If anything, she was a bad influence on him, but all they saw was the loser who might ruin her future.

“Just let us know where you’re going to be,” her mother said, as if that was the least she could do. What she meant was, stay out of the police log in the Star-Beacon so you don’t hurt your father’s business. It could have been the family motto: All a realtor has is his good name.

“We’ll probably go to the beach if it’s nice,” Kim said, and it wasn’t a lie. They might hit a couple of dives on the way, but by the end of the night they would be sitting in the cold sand around a driftwood fire, listening to the soft wash of the waves. If it rained they’d probably go to Elise’s and play pool in her basement.

“Let us know if you go anywhere else. You’ve got your phone.”

Her mother didn’t really mean this. She needed to be in bed by ten at the latest to get up for work. Her father was the one who waited up for Kim, though that had changed since graduation. Weekends she used to find him asleep on the couch with the TV on mute and the clicker in his lap; now that she was out every night he turned off all the lights but the ones in the back hall and the stairwell, making a path to her room.

Her parents’ door was closed. So was Lindsay’s. Closing hers just completed the set.

Alone in bed she read Madeleine L’Engle and Lloyd Alexander—otherworldly fantasies she’d loved as a girl, as if trying to call back that lost time. Even if J.P. and Nina had had to drive her home, she could convince herself she wasn’t tired. There was nothing to get up for, and in the quiet warmth of the covers she fought the spins by concentrating on the sentences snaking down the page and in the morning woke up with a killer headache, the room too bright. She pulled her pillow over her head and made it all go away.

That day she got up around eleven, to Cooper licking. He’d butted the door open and was beached with his head under her dresser. “Stop,” she said, “Cooper, stop,” and then couldn’t get back to sleep. To make up for it she took a leisurely shower, closing her eyes beneath the spray.

On her dry-erase board her mother had left a message to please take Lindsay out driving, and a little cartoon car with two heads in it. Lindsay had her permit but needed someone with a license to go with her, and her mother conveniently didn’t have time.

“Fuck me,” Kim said, because everyone was going swimming at the river. If she’d known she would have gotten up earlier.

Lindsay was downstairs, lying on the couch, watching Bubble Boy for the millionth time, laughing before the actors could deliver their lines. They were three years apart, just close enough so they overlapped her last year at the high school. Lindsay was the baby, and the brain. She still had braces, and painful-looking zits she tried to cover with foundation. She hung around with the other nerdy girls in the wind ensemble and the robotics club. Last spring she and her friends had camped out overnight to be first in line for the new Star Wars. Since then Nina called her Obi Wan Ke-No-Boobs. Kim didn’t like to think of her alone here with their parents, as if she was abandoning her to an infinite limbo.

Today, though, she was a pain. Kim knew she was being selfish—exactly what her mother had trumped her with in their most recent battle—but that only made it worse.

“Let’s go,” she told her. “Put your shoes on.”

“It’s almost over.”

“Just pause it. I’ve got shit to do.”

“Okay, you don’t have to be a jerk about it.”

“I’m not the one crying to Mom every five seconds.”

“I didn’t!” Lindsay said. “It was Dad who said—”

“Whatever, just come on. I need to be back by one.”

Lindsay brushed past her and ran upstairs.

“Where are you going?”

“I need my glasses.”

Her answer made Kim shake her head. Who wore glasses anymore?

In the driveway she watched Lindsay squinting at the idiot lights of the dash, trying to remember the steps in the right order. Her hand paused over the shifter like a novice trying to defuse a bomb. She’d brought her manual, like that might help.

“Emergency brake,” Kim said.

“I know.”

“Then do it.”

She was tentative backing up, leaning to peer in her side mirror, drifting toward the mailbox. Kim turned off the radio so she could concentrate.

“Straighten it out. Good. Now give it some gas.”

They shadowed the railroad tracks, practicing right-hand turns in the rundown blocks off Buffalo. The streets back here were still the original red brick, frost-heaved and dotted with ugly patches of asphalt. The houses were rentals, sagging Italianates and vinyl-sided duplexes with rusty wire fences threatening tetanus. Her father saw them as the enemy in the endless struggle to keep up Kingsville’s property values, blaming the landlords more than the tenants, as if ownership somehow made them more responsible. She and Nina had waited outside late one night before graduation while J.P. and Hinch went in. Everybody knew where to go.

Now, in the middle of the day, husky mothers in shorts sat smoking and drinking sodas on their stoops while their kids chased one another around the sun-browned yards. They marked the Chevette each time it swung wide and then corrected, followed it like cops, and Kim told Lindsay to take the underpass to the high school.

She was surprised to find so many cars in the lot. Like idiots, the football team was out practicing in the heat. One mother had brought a lawn chair to watch them, an umbrella attached to make her own personal shade. Down at the empty end, Lindsay parked and parked. Kim had done the same drills with her father, and imitated his patience, praising her when she fitted the car between the lines (though she’d done it in the company wagon, nearly twice the size of the Chevette), calmly calling for the brake when she seemed headed for the curb.

“You been going out with Dad a lot?”

“Not a lot. Why?”

“You’re doing really good.”

“Thanks.” Lindsay was puzzled, as if this might be a set-up. Kim hadn’t been very nice to her lately. She’d complained about it to her mother, who as usual did nothing.

“Let’s go do the drive-thru at the DQ.” Only after the offer was out did Kim realize what she was saying. The lane that wrapped around the Dairy Queen was narrow, and two cement-filled steel posts guarded the window.

“I thought you had ‘shit’ to do.”

“I do, but it’s lunchtime. My treat.”

It took forever to get there, and then there was a line.

“I can’t do this,” Lindsay said.

“Let the brake off and inch up behind this guy. You’ve got room on my side if you need it.”

Once, when Kim was just beginning, she veered too close to some parked cars and without a word her father grabbed the wheel with one hand and tugged it till they were going straight. She resisted the urge now. Lindsay craned her chin toward the windshield, trying to see over the hood.

“Just follow him,” Kim said. “He’s bigger than you are.”

At the order board she braked too hard, jerking them forward.


“You have to roll your window down.”

“What the hell do you want?” the speaker blurted—Marnie, pointing at them from the cockpit of the pick-up window. She didn’t see it was Lindsay driving till they pulled up. They were so far away that Lindsay had to open her door to grab the bag.

“Nice job there,” Marnie said.

“Don’t take that shit from her,” Kim said, and stuck out her tongue.

“Don’t die in a terrible fiery accident,” Marnie said.

“You too.”

Eating fries while driving was too advanced, so they found a shady spot at the back of the lot and turned on the radio. The trees inside the spiked iron fence were old, their roots poking through the dry grass like knucklebones. Sparrows hopped among the faded decorations, wreaths on green wire stands and flags left over from Memorial Day. Lindsay squeezed ketchup into the top of her clamshell so they could share. They sat side-by-side, dipping and chewing. They didn’t spend time together like this, and she was self-conscious, not wanting to ruin it.

“Got a game tonight?”

“Yeah,” Lindsay said, downcast, as if she didn’t want to be reminded.

“Who you playing?”

“D’know. We suck anyway.”

“That’s not what Dad says.”

“You’ve never seen us.” Kim had played for him too, enduring his relentless overcoaching as Edgewater Properties sank to its proper spot at the bottom of the league. But Kim could actually play. Lindsay had inherited her cleats but that was it. With her knobby knees and braces she was terrified of the ball, and dreaded every game.

“I thought you were supposed to be going to the playoffs.”

“Everybody goes to the playoffs now. It’s like the Special Olympics.”

“How many more games you got?”

“Five and then the playoffs. So six.”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

They ate to Weezer and Franz Ferdinand, pinching the soggy ends of their burgers, trying not to drip on anything. Kim finished first, and though she was afraid it would sound lame and melodramatic, she also knew this might be the perfect opportunity, while Lindsay’s mouth was full.

“You know, dude,” she said, “I’m really going to miss you.”

“No you won’t,” Lindsay said, tipping her chin up so she didn’t spew lettuce everywhere.

“You don’t think so.”

“You’ll be too busy with your new friends and everything.”

She didn’t have to say “Just like now.” Okay, that was fair, but she would miss Linds too. Couldn’t both things be true?

“You can come visit me.”

“I don’t think Mom’ll let me.”

“Maybe not this year but next year. You’re going to have to start looking at schools then anyway. Not that you’ll be looking at Bowling Green.”

“God, I hope not,” Lindsay said—a joke, or it was supposed to be, so she was relieved when Kim laughed. Deep down Lindsay knew Kim was disappointed with Bowling Green—as were her parents, though they never said anything. Case Western had been her first choice, but she didn’t even make the waiting list. Nina was going to Denison, Elise had been early decision at Kenyon. While Lindsay felt bad for Kim, she vowed to herself she would do better than any of them.

They were both finished and it was nearly one. Kim turned off the radio. “Ready?”

Lindsay nodded, serious, sitting upright like a test pilot. She had to use both hands to depress the button of the emergency brake.

“Come on, Muscles,” Kim said.

They drove back past the hospital with its helipad off in the corner of the lot. Her mother’s Subaru was in its usual spot, a fold-out silver reflector protecting the dash from the sun. In the ER, she would be sitting at her window, patiently taking down someone’s information, checking off boxes, the queen of clipboards. By the time she got home Kim would be at work. The only time they saw each other now was on weekends. Lindsay thought it was easier. Since the end of school they’d been fighting over J.P. and her drinking and breaking curfew. Her mother was just freaked out about her leaving.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Eighteen-year-old Kim Larsen has her whole future ahead of her. Just out of high school, she’s spending one last summer in Kingsville, Ohio, lounging around at the lake with her boyfriend J.P. and her friends Nina and Elise, working at a local minimart, partying at night, and preparing for college in the fall. But one night, Kim and her Chevette disappear without warning and without a trace. Her parents call the police who tell them that many missing teenagers are, in fact, runaways. Everyone in Kim’s circle agrees that she would never do that, not when she was about to leave for college and begin her adult life in earnest. They suspect the truth is far more sinister.

While the police begin their investigation, Kim’s parents set up massive search parties, arrange television interviews and organize public appearances pleading for information, rallying the town around their cause. After being questioned by the police, J.P., Nina, and Elise yield some insight into Kim’s darker, private life, but even these revelations offer no leads as to where Kim might be. As the days and then months pass, the chances of finding Kim alive grow dimmer. The Kingsville community must go on with the business of day-to-day living and soon Kim becomes just another face on a missing persons flyer.

Meanwhile, the Larsens privately grapple with the loss and uncertainty that has shaken their family. Kim’s mother, Fran, energetically dedicates herself to finding her daughter, spending every waking hour on the search and discovering a new sense of purpose in the work. Kim’s dad suffers from insomnia and helplessness, and feels himself growing apart from his constantly busy wife. Kim’s younger sister, Lindsay, always the smarter but more awkward sibling, experiences her grief as anger and feels even more alienated than before, no longer sure how to define herself now that Kim is gone.

In his twelfth novel, following the critically acclaimed bestseller Last Night at the Lobster, Stewart O’Nan demonstrates an uncanny ability to delve into the lives of ordinary, well-meaning people confronting tragedy. Here, in a story of a girl gone missing, he finds the quieter emotional narrative behind the sensational events. O’Nan’s clear, sharp prose and tremendous empathy yields flawed yet heroic characters whose every word and gesture rings true. Defying genre, Songs for the Missing is a remarkable novel that begins as a thriller and widens into an elegiac examination of family, love, and longing.


Stewart O’Nan is the author of eleven novels. His most recent, Last Night at the Lobster, was lauded as one of the top ten fiction books of 2007 by Entertainment Weekly. He has also written an award-winning story collection, In the Walled City, and two works of nonfiction, including Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, a collaboration with Stephen King. He lives with his family in Connecticut.


  • Early on in the police investigation there’s a question of whether Kim ran away or was abducted. How does this issue get resolved and do you believe it’s the right conclusion?
  • Kim’s family disapproves of her involvement with J.P. What do you make of his character? Is he a bad influence or a normal teenager?
  • Kim’s friends hide the truth about Kim’s private life from her parents. What impact does this have on the search to find her? Are they right to protect her privacy or are they selfish for trying to protect themselves?
  • What are Lindsay’s feelings about her sister’s disappearance and how does the experience ultimately change her?
  • How do Kim’s parents cope individually and collectively with her absence? Where do they differ and how?
  • What significance does the butterfly pendant have for Kim’s mom?
  • Kingsville is a distinctively Midwestern small town. Could this story have taken place in another setting? How might it be different?
  • Kim is only physically present in one scene in the book but much of the description of her character comes through her friends’ and family’s point of view. Do you feel that you “know” her? Do you feel that her friends and family know her? What don’t they know or understand about her?
  • The Larsens are dissatisfied with the police’s efforts. How would you rate the police performance in the search for Kim? Have they done enough or could they have done more?
  • In the beginning of the book, O’Nan places us in Kim’s point of view as she ponders “the sins of the Midwest.” She says, “flatness, emptiness, a necessary acceptance of the familiar. Where is the romance in being buried alive? In growing old?” How do these sentiments resonate throughout the story? Why did the author choose to include them?
  • At the end of the book the reader still knows very little about what really happened to Kim. Does this matter to you? Do you find the ending satisfying?
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 127 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 127 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2008

    Family coming to grips with a tragic reality

    I enjoyed Mr. O'Nan's writing style. The book flowed for me. Not so much a story of a missing person (as I had expected), but more a story of a family dealing with a tragic event... day by day, month by month, year by year. Since reading this book, every time I have seen a missing child story, I feel an immediate connection with what the family is going through.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 5, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Songs For the Missing

    This is Stewart's 12 fiction book. This is my first time reading Stewart O'Nan's work. I throughly enjoyed the book and I am looking forward to reading his other books.<BR/><BR/>The books is about the Larsen family, the friends and a small town community dealing with the disappereance of the Larsen's 18 year old daughter Kim. Kim is a popular and happy go lucky kind of girl. She is a recent high school graduate who is leaving in a few weeks to go to college in the midwest. Kim disappears on her way to work one evening without a trace. There is very little to go on and nothing turns up.<BR/><BR/>The family is doing everything in their power to find Kim. Fran is doing media, handing out buttons, passing out flyers and seeks out donations to help in the search for her daughter. Ed is getting people involved in search parties. Finally with no leads or nothing to go on the media is no longer interested and the family is having to deal with their loss of Kim not returning home. The family continues to search and keep their hopes alive that they will find her. <BR/><BR/>Will their efforts pay off?

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 16, 2010

    I Also Recommend:


    Ok...So I couldn't let this book have only 2 stars. It is excellent. Now it is not a epic who done it. It is a simple story with characters who aren't constantly crying. They are coping.

    It is subtle...and extremely well-written. I cared about these characters.

    Read this book with an open mind...It is a solid read!!


    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2008


    The beginning of the book is good, but O'Nan forgets about Kim and throws us into the life of the family and friends of Kim. Honestly, the book was not for me, but it could be for other people with a different taste. The author writes wonderfuly, but in some parts of the book, like the fishing and about Nina and J.P. reuniting, really did not matter, and did not add anything to the story. I was dissapointed in the end, but also glad that Kim's sister was finaly able to blend into a crowd and become unnoticed after all of that time being the center of attention for the family, town, and meeting.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2008

    Songs for the Missing

    Songs for the Missing is not the story of Kim Larsen, recent graduate bound for college. Even though the story opens in her viewpoint, she¿ll soon be silenced. And all that will be left behind is her memory. Her parents, sister, boyfriend, friends and community will begin a massive search for her. It¿s their songs Stewart O¿Nan wants us to hear. Her mother and father will struggle and falter for a time before they grow into advocates. Her boyfriend will wrestle with guilt and her friends will worry about saving themselves. Her sister will grow from a fifteen year old in the shadow of her older sister to a young woman forever transformed by the time her sister was missing. This reviewer¿s not read any other Stewart O¿Nan novels, but will surely be looking to read a few more. The thing Mr. O¿Nan does best is tell the story in a matter-of-fact tone that is both tight and unsentimental. This is a rare skill for today¿s novelists one I truly appreciate. The story takes place over a number of years, but the passage of time passes effortlessly for the reader. Because it is so tight, I suspect that some will feel that it lacked something in depth, a fair argument. Songs for the Missing is a character driven, slow plotted story. The narrative is propelled by the voices Kim left behind, not by their actions. Like the story itself, the ending is abrupt and unyielding, a good match for the tone of most of the novel. When my own children were young, I avoided all books on this topic in fear of making the thought real. It seems, when we imagine this horror, that we would never survive, but what Songs for the Missing does best is to show us the everyday lives of a family taking each step in that horror filled world. Recommended for readers who enjoy slower paced, character driven stories or readers who have a special interest in missing persons, or readers who enjoy stories examining family/community relationships.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2008

    Songs for the Missing

    i had been longing to read one of stewart o'nan's books for a long time...he's a friend of stephen king and i had always heard good things about his books. i'm so glad i was chosen to read Songs for the Missing as part of the Barnes and Noble First Look Book Club. this book was wonderful. i tend to lean toward mysteries and thrillers and historial fiction, or the latest best seller, not all of which lend themselves to great writing. while the subject matter of Songs was depressing and sad and quietly devastating, i couldn't put it down. i felt as if i knew the characters, like they were actual people, and i found myself thinking about them when i wasn't reading, and after i finished the book. i totally 'got' what they were experiencing - i almost felt as though i was experiencing the loss of someone close to me. i thought o'nan handled each of the characters perfectly, male and female...from the parents, to kim's kid sister, to her they felt guilty for some of their thoughts or how they handled themselves in this horrible situation. i suspect Songs will stay with me for a long time, and i am looking forward to reading more of o'nan's fiction. he's a wonderful, true writer. this book IS a song.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2011

    Loved this one!

    This book was really a great one -- it kept you engrossed from the beginning and I could barely put it down.
    I have read other Steward O'Nan books -- and this one was one of the best.

    Highly recommend this one

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  • Posted June 21, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    O'Nan is a master

    Being familiar with O'Nan's honest and subdued writing style, I read Songs for the Missing with his mastery in mind. I was not disappointed. This is not a book filled with cheap gimmicks and emotional schlock. It is an honest portrait of loss and love and a family's desperate and often divergent attempts to reconcile the inconceivable. O'Nan, as evidenced in many of his works, is a master at the slow burn and he evokes such emotion with the gentlest of tugs here that he had me turning pages at a steady pace. An excellent book by one of today's best authors no one is talking about.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2009

    Okay, but not what I expected

    I was hoping for so much more from this book. It was an okay read but check it out at the library instead of spending money on it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 3, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Rapaciously cold

    The idea of Songs for the Missing is a necessary tale for all. However, this telling takes cliches in the youth of America and bashes the delicacy of suffering with a two by four. The idea that a younger sister would have such a self-absorbed reality in the face of such a great loss leaves you with an emptiness that surpasses the loss of her sister, the loss of life. Beneath the desire to leave her childhood and enter into her own "self", there was the true tale to be told. It was not. The profound mirror that could have been exposed by this tale was smashed as a nightmare in so many pieces. The idea that we, the readers, would feel satisfied with a young girl emblazoning her future with the criminally obtuse and cruel outlook of a sociopath, in the face of her sisters death defies logic. We live in a world where such losses cause the tradjectory of our lives to continue the destruction path likened to a tornado. Unless we find the rays of truth and effort that can cure our broken hearts. This was the tale needed to be told and was not. An opportunity was lost here. The parents, not allowed to cry or spew the anger of such horror leaves one feeling the same stiffling that comes to us all in our childhood scars. I suggest to anyone considering this read, save you breath!!! You will feel the helplessness of a neon having jumped from an aquariam as you find yourself losing your breath in the repressed suffering that arises from this pathetic book. It was as cold and stinking and empty as the bones found at the end of the book.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good For Those Interested In The Subject

    An excerpt of my First Look review, full review originally published and copyrighted on my website -

    Songs for the Missing is not the story of Kim Larsen, recent graduate bound for college. Even though the story opens in her viewpoint, she'll soon be silenced. And all that will be left behind is her memory. Her parents, sister, boyfriend, friends and community will begin a massive search for her. It's their songs Stewart O'Nan wants us to hear..... This reviewer's not read any other Stewart O'Nan novels, but will surely be looking to read a few more. The thing Mr. O'Nan does best is tell the story in a matter-of-fact tone that is both tight and unsentimental. This is a rare skill for today's novelists; one I truly appreciate.......

    Really a 3.5

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 9, 2009

    Family in crisis

    Great book about what happens to a family when a child goes missing.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 4, 2009

    A great read

    Sad but wonderfully written. I could relate to the characters and the emotions that they were feeling.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Mind-opening about facing a tragedy...

    This book is very easy to read and holds your attention to the end. It gives the reader other perspectives of people dealing with uncertainty, change, tragedy, and loss.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 23, 2009

    Coping with loss

    During the summer following her high school graduation, Kim Larsen is working at the Conoco by the freeway. Sometimes she stands on the overpass and watches the cars bound for Cleveland, Toledo and beyond. After work, she and her friends go to the beach to talk and drink beer. Then Kim goes missing.
    Stewart O'Nan writes quietly, pulling the reader into the thoughts and emotions of Kim's family and friends. While the search for Kim goes on, those close to her try to cope, and that is the focus of the novel. Kim's disappearance causes strains in her family and between her family and her friends. This is not a police procedural nor a novel of suspense. But the suspense is there even as O'Nan writes of the efforts of those who knew Kim best to make sense of the situation, to go on despite the uncertainty of Kim's fate.
    Kim and her family live in Kingsville, Ohio, a small town on Lake Erie not far from the Pennsylvania line. O'Nan is obviously familiar with the area, and the book is full of local references. When Kim's mother says she's surprised the Star Beacon hasn't called about a possible, Kim"s father tells her she has too confidence in the paper. The Star Beacon is a real paper, and the feelings expressed by Mr. Larsen are common in Ashtabula County.
    O'Nan makes us care, and he does it without cheap tricks and gore. The characters in this novel stay with you long after you put the book down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2009

    Once I opened this book- I could not put it down.

    The book captured me right away and kept me all the way to the end.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2009


    Started strong, but got very, very slow. Disappointing ending. Hardly any sense of closure. The only reason I kept reading was to find out what happened to Kim, but in the end even that isn't explained very well...

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  • Posted December 30, 2008

    more from this reviewer


    This book is mesmerizing start to finish. However it is not a relaxing read. You are sitting on the edge of your seat and hoping against hope that the end will be different. The mother character is brittle and unlikable, reminds me of the mother in Ordinary People. She creates a shell around herself to protect her from her own feelings. The Dad is a likable loser, you feel his pain radiate from the pages. The big story in the book is that of the younger sister. Her heartbreaking reaction to being thrust into a situation that no one should have to deal with.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2008

    Songs for the Missing

    Great book, sad content. I recommend this book to all my fellow readers.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2008

    Songs for the Missing

    I loved this book and found it difficult to put down. The story revolves around the family and friends of Kim Larson, a teenager who suddenly goes missing. Those close to Kim handle the situation in different ways from physically searching, getting involved with media events and withdrawing into themselves. Even though the book is not told as emotionally as many other books covering the same subject matter, I felt very involved in the story. I really cared about the characters and the outcome. Stewart O'Nan writes in a stark style, but I felt like I was right there with the family. I think Mr. O'Nan has become one of my favorite writers.

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