At the heart of family novels there’s often a secret, and how that secret plays out in family dynamics forms the heart of the story. Liese O’Halloran Schwarz’s third novel is no exception, with several secrets reverberating from the past.
As the novel opens, 54-year-old Laura Preston is treading water. Her art plateaued years ago, and she’s in a stagnant relationship with a lawyer named Edward. She doesn’t get along with her disapproving sister, Bea, and their mother, Genevieve, is slipping away to dementia. When Laura gets a call from a stranger who says her long-lost brother, Philip, has been found, she impulsively buys a ticket to Bangkok and sets off to find him.
This sounds like a setup for a suspense novel, and What Could Be Saved does offer suspenseful moments and surprising reversals. But two other elements make this novel uniquely satisfying: the portraits of each Preston family member, and the novel’s depiction of the unintended consequences of late 20th-century Americans abroad.
In Bangkok, Laura connects with the man who might be Philip, and from there, the narrative slips back to 1972, where it rotates through the perspectives of mother Genevieve; father Robert; young Laura and Philip; and Noi, a homesick Thai servant to the Prestons. Through their stories, readers learn what brought the Preston family to Bangkok, how the Vietnam War has spilled into other countries and the truth behind Philip’s disappearance. As the story shifts back and forth in time, the present-day Laura warily tries to make sense of Philip’s new presence, unearthing further truths about her family.
Genevieve is an especially memorable character, depicted at first as a shallow expat wife but when confronted with extreme loss is forced to change dramatically. Schwarz also gives wonderful texture to life in early 1970s Bangkok, although occasionally those details go too far, lending weight to moments that don’t need them.
What Could Be Saved juggles a complex story and structure, creating believable characters in its portrait of a family shattered by loss.