In ‘Dear Edward’ the world’s most famous orphan finds something to live for

Ron Charles

Don’t read this book on a plane. Or if you ever hope to fly again. Ann Napolitano’s new novel, Dear Edward, opens with the crash of a sold-out flight from New York to Los Angeles. A conspiracy of freak weather conditions and pilot error sends the Airbus A321 rocketing into the ground somewhere in Colorado.

I read these fatalistic chapters in a crouching stance of dread. There’s something brutal about killing a planeload of people and then introducing a handful of them and killing them all over again. But the cruelty of this aspect of the novel’s structure is countered by the astonishing tenderness of other sections. Amid the wreckage of that downed jet, one passenger is found alive: a 12-year-old boy named Edward.

Napolitano, the associate editor of One Story magazine, has written a novel about the peculiar challenges of surviving a public disaster in the modern age. She shows with bracing clarity just how cable news and social media magnify misery and exposure as never before. Edward awakens in the hospital as the world’s most famous orphan. Broken and terrified, he must immediately shoulder a weird blend of trauma and adulation. Having lost his loving parents and a brother he idolised, he does not feel “lucky”. Despite being dubbed “The Boy Who Lived”, he wields no magic, but millions of web pages claim otherwise.

Napolitano attends to this cultural context deftly, letting the world’s agony and curiosity play out largely on the sidelines of what remains a delicate story of one boy’s physical and psychological recovery. Although Edward has been abruptly expelled from childhood, he’s not yet an adult either. Suspended in a fugue of depression, he’s largely oblivious to his surroundings.

That blankness at the centre of this novel could have become a kind of black hole absorbing all light and interest, but Napolitano captures the subtle shades of Edward’s spirit like the earliest intimations of dawn. Even trapped in the painful narcissism of bereavement, Edward remains attentive to certain frequencies of others’ sadness. He senses immediately, for instance, that his aunt and uncle have set aside their own private sorrows to create a new home for him. They have no time to mourn their latest miscarriage. The unused nursery must be redecorated. The baby they were praying for has arrived as a 12-year-old boy trailing clouds of death.

I fear I’m making this sound repellently gloomy, but in Napolitano’s gentle handling, it’s persistently lovely. In fact, Dear Edward sometimes feels like Judith Guest’s Ordinary People reimagined in pastel colours. Much of that sweetness stems from her portrayal of Edward, who is indeed dear, but it’s a strange girl named Shay who really leavens the novel.

With Shay, Napolitano captures the authentic quirkiness of a precocious adolescent. She lives next door to Edward’s aunt and uncle, and from the start she’s the only person who speaks to Edward with complete and cleansing candour.

While everyone else tries to keep him happy in a little terrarium of normal life, Shay comes right out and tells him early on, “I heard a doctor on TV say that there was a zero per cent chance of survival from your plane crash. … You’ll never be a normal kid.” From the summit of her own oddness, she understands Edward’s oddness.

“Shay feels like oxygen to him,” Napolitano writes. She provides exactly the atmosphere of clarity that this fractured boy needs to rebuild his life, and watching them do that together is one of the most touching stories you’re likely to read in the new year.