Book review

Sometimes a novel guarantees you a pleasurably mind-bending time just with its opening paragraph. That’s the case with Nell Freudenberger’s “Lost and Wanted.”

“In the first few months after Charlie died,” narrator Helen Clapp tells us on the book’s first page, “I began hearing from her much more frequently. This was even more surprising than it might have been, since Charlie wasn’t a good correspondent even when she was alive.”

“Lost and Wanted,” Freudenberger’s third novel, has all the venturesome verve of her debut “Lucky Girls,” a novella collection that boasted a strong sense of history, a merciless and often hilarious eye for family dynamics and an equally sharp eye for cultures in collision.

All those factors come into play in “Lost and Wanted.” The cultures in collision have less to do with nationality or ethnic identity — though there’s some of that — than with the world of science and its seeming opposite: human susceptibility to feelings of being haunted in times of grief. The book also slyly weighs the way we use intuition and intellect to parse our realities.

“It is often impossible to understand a concept in physics without an analogy,” Helen acknowledges. “What I dislike are scientific analogies for emotional states.” Still, she admits, with Charlie’s death she’s finding the latter “difficult to avoid.”

Helen is a successful professor of theoretical physics at MIT, intensely focused on her career. She’s also the single mother (“by choice”) of a 7-year-old son, after giving up on “the fantasy that a man with the intelligence and ambition required to interest me in the long term would arrive at the perfect reproductive moment.”

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In contrast, Helen’s best friend and old Harvard roommate, Charlie Boyce, opted for “a man who seemed to have no ambition other than to be with her and raise the child.” This is Terrence, a Los Angeles surfer — as “blindingly attractive” as Charlie is — who’s happy to stay home and care for their daughter while Charlie pursues a television career.

A further difference between the women — Freudenberger reveals this only after the dynamics in Helen and Charlie’s friendship are well established — is that Charlie is “an upper-middle-class black girl” from the Boston area while Helen is “a work-study white science nerd from Pasadena.”

Contact between Helen and Charlie became sporadic after they moved to opposite coasts, and Helen only belatedly grew aware that Charlie was stricken with lupus — the disease that led to her death at the age of 45. That death, when it comes, reveals all sorts of unfinished business, not just between Charlie and Helen, but between Terrence and Charlie’s parents who have their doubts about his handling of Charlie’s illness — even though they know full well that Charlie always did things entirely on her own terms.

Those terms take an eerie twist when Charlie seems to maintain cellphone contact with Helen after her death. But then Charlie always did delight in playing with reality. “I love lying,” she once said at a college-party guessing game. “It’s so liberating.”

Helen is quite the opposite, striving “to help keep everyone’s feet planted firmly on the ground” on both the home front and in the laboratory. But with everyone around her confronting Charlie’s death in sharply different ways, she has her work cut out for her.

Helen’s close ally in her research, Neel Jonnal, is the other key figure in the novel. The two are one-time lovers who can’t quite remember why they ever broke up. For most readers, their esoteric vocabulary (“spooky action,” “globular cluster models”) will work more like verbal color than intelligible content. But that doesn’t make the book’s artful parallels between emotional questions and scientific inquiry feel any less urgent.

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“Sometimes you could hope for an outcome so intensely,” Helen says, “that it led you to break your own rules in order to produce it; even very distinguished scientists sometimes saw a meaningful pattern in what turned out to be simply noise.”

Freudenberger handles the mystery of where noise fades and pattern emerges brilliantly.

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“Lost and Wanted” by Nell Freudenberger, Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95

Nell Freudenberger discusses “Lost and Wanted” with Claire Dederer at 7 p.m. Monday, May 6, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com