Working at a mall doesn’t compare to going to one voluntarily. Having to deal with strange customers, egotistical bosses, and flaky co-workers isn’t worth the slightly above minimum wages. Catherine O’Flynn gives a pretty spot-on description of mall life in What Was Lost. Green Oaks, the Birmingham shopping center detailed in the novel, is a nightmarish complex, and she gives an accurate insight on how suffocating it may be to work there long after you should have moved on.
The mall is the setting of the story, which begins in 1984 with Kate Meany, a ten-year-old aspiring detective who’s utterly fascinated by the newly opened Green Oaks. Kate is a social misfit who spends as much time at the mall as possible, honing her skills and waiting to pounce on any mischief-makers who may cross her path. With her old soul and innocent imagination, it’s hard not to adore her.
But once you read the synopsis on the back cover, you know things aren’t going to end up well for Kate. Your heart breaks with anticipation as you discover where her charmingly inquisitive personality will lead her. Sympathy for Kate is what keeps the reader going; you’ll want to know what possibly could have occurred to cause this lovable girl’s downfall.
Before you can find out, O’Flynn fast-forwards twenty years and focuses on the lives of Lisa and Kurt, both employees of Green Oaks. Kate’s sweetness and light is unpleasantly contrasted by the miserable existences of Lisa and Kurt. Both are pitiful. Lisa, a mall record store manager stuck in a loveless relationship, is the sister of Adrian, who ran away after being accused of involvement in Kate’s disappearance. Meanwhile, Kurt, a nightshift security guard who still hasn’t recovered from the death of the love of his life four years earlier, is connected to Kate in his own way.
The two are soon brought together by the girl. Kurt begins searching for Kate after seeing her image on a surveillance camera. The two are determined to unravel the mystery together, but this plotline actually seems to take a backseat to the pair’s self-pity and attempts to change their pathetic situations. After one too many chapters learning why Lisa and Kurt’s lives are so disappointing, you’ll begin to wish that O’Flynn will just get on with it and get back to Kate, or at least what happened to her.
The book eventually ends in a conveniently roundabout fashion, predictable in some ways and slightly surprising (if a little too convenient) in others. O’Flynn’s talent is very apparent. But in her attempts to tell her story in an unusual way, she drops the reader just as she’s hooked them. (Holt Paperbacks, 256 pages, $14)