The Missing Portrait by Geraldine Glodek tells the story of Mary Frances, her mother, five men, and Sharon, the young woman who may live today because Mary Frances had sex with four boys (she had expected three) in 1962 on the top floor of a former United Mineworkers building in a Pennsylvania coal town. The two omniscient narrators are rats, and they are adept at describing the towns in Pennsylvania and Maine, their people, history, and culture.
Mary Frances’ mother, Joyce, is obsessed with denying her daughter’s pregnancy, to the point of explaining that Mary Frances is missing one high school photo because she was recuperating from a broken leg in Vermont. The whole town, Mount of Olives, knows different.
Mary Frances gave birth in a ‘home’ in New England and, without seeing the child, gives the baby up for adoption. But she does not forget, and twenty-five years later, she retires from the Navy and wants to know more. Mom is no more forthcoming now than then. She won’t even name the town where the baby was born.
One of the four gang-bangers is on a business trip in Maine and sees Sharon. He invites the other three and another self-centered friend to join him later and take a look at her themselves. They all believe that Sharon — an overweight, bed-wetting, woman who usually lives in a transition home for women in her Maine town — does resemble Mary Frances.
The five former coal-town high school mates come across largely as crude men you want your daughters protected from and hope even your sons never meet. They brag about their petty lives and sexual ‘conquests’ and deride one another. Only one seems to regret his actions of long ago, but a reader senses this is more because he would rather not deal with the guilt.
Unknown to four of the men, the fifth one poses as a lawyer hired to find Sharon and introduce her to her birth mother. He is a convincing liar.
While the book’s first human character is Mary Frances, relatively little of the book features her. Sharon and the liar-cum-lawyer (Tim Giovanni) are presented the most, but there are many characters and many points of view. Several family histories are described in great detail.
The story has a couple of good twists, and Glodek describes every setting well and relates it to her characters. However, there is a lot that distracts from what appears to be the main story. A reader can come to care what happens to Sharon or whether Mary Frances ever meets her child, but much of the detail on the five high school friends and their lives (and other characters) is simply information.
Characters explain their thoughts in great detail, even when talking to people who know them well. A number of scenes come across as material the author wants a reader to know rather than revelations that move the story or a character forward.
The most compelling aspect of the book is its description of Sharon’s life and feelings. Glodek portrays the life of a woman on the raw end of life in a very convincing fashion.
If you are looking for a book about piggish men and one conniving woman whose actions have consequences over decades, then The Missing Portrait is for you. I give it three stars, because the plot twist is very good.