lost & Found† as befits a book on contrasts, it is a kind of hybrid. On the one hand, it is a memoir of two shocking events that happened almost simultaneously in Kathryn Schulz’s life: the death of her beloved 74-year-old father and her crush, in middle age, on a woman she calls C. It also alternates. between two different modes: the personal, where Schulz associates these events with influencing prose; and the more distant, essayistic style that will be familiar to readers of her Pulitzer-winning work in The New Yorker.
After establishing the fact of her father’s death in the book’s opening, Schulz takes the reader into a series of long, impersonal digressions on the subject of loss in general: “Phone chargers, umbrellas, earrings, scarves, passports, headphones, musical instruments, Christmas decorations, your daughter’s field trip permit… the range and amount of things we lose is staggering.” She is such a good writer of non-fiction that she is never less than a cunning and entertaining company, casting spells like ‘In the microdrama of loss we are almost always both villain and victim’, and giving thoughtful readings from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art, in which the narrator considers ‘the art of losing’.
But the story only really comes to life when she reflects on her father’s story. She sees his incurable habit of losing things as “the comic-opera version of the series of losses that shaped his childhood…one that was defined by loss to an extraordinary degree”. Her father’s mother was the youngest of 11 children who lived in a shtetl outside Łódź in the late 1930s, and since her family was too large and too poor to survive the war together, “according to a private account unimaginable to me,” Schulz writes, she was designated as the only one to be taken to safety, to Tel Aviv. Her son was born there and at one point she got word that almost everyone at home had died. In 1954, the visas for the two were insured for the US.
The second part of the book describes Schulz’s surprise at finding a life partner after years of nurturing a bookish loneliness. Here her tendency to wander can be seen as a defense against tacky sentimentality. If so, she needn’t have worried. When she goes to describe meeting C (after 30 pages of philosophizing and psychologizing on the subject of ‘finding’), she writes beautifully about falling in love: ‘Everything that was not her – the house around us, the rest of the world, the passing of the time, the past and the future – withdrawn from consciousness.”
But Schulz’s unusual method – part essay, part memoir – comes into its own in the last third of the book. This begins with a description of a meteor hitting Earth during the Eocene epoch and ends, 35 million years later, on a “beautiful afternoon in May” with Kathryn’s wedding to C. There follows a fascinating explanation of how the ampersand symbol went out of fashion as the last letter of the English alphabet in the early 1800s, giving Schulz the opportunity to expound the paradoxical nature of life: “In short, we know that, as Philip Roth once put it, said, ‘Life is and.’ He meant that for the most part we don’t live in an either/or world. We live with both at the same time, with many things at once – everything connected to the opposite, everything connected to everything.”
In these passages, Schulz’s prose rises almost to the level of Nietzsche at his most wise and humane, or William James. When Schulz reveals in the final pages that she and C are expecting a baby, her reflections on time, loss and mortality take on even greater resonance. “We’re here to keep watch,” she concludes, “not to keep.”