“Celine” by Peter Heller

CelineI read a lot of good books, but every year, there are a couple that I find myself enthusiastically recommending to people. The latest book added to my “You must read this!” list is Peter Heller’s Celine, a beautifully-written and engrossing novel featuring one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve encountered in a while.

Celine is in her late 60s, an old-money WASP who makes her living as a private eye. The only type of case she takes is reuniting parents and children. At her side is her doting and taciturn second husband, Pete, who adores Celine and yet finds her an endless source of mystery (just how did she become so proficient with firearms?).

Celine’s latest client is a young woman whose father disappeared many years before, leaving her an orphan (her mother drowned when she was very young). Supposedly, the man—a skilled photographer who often worked for National Geographic—had been fatally mauled by a bear, but his body was never found, just some smashed camera equipment, blood on a tree trunk, and a few discarded pieces of clothing. The client is convinced her father faked his own death, and if he is still alive, she wants him to meet his grandchild.

Because Celine’s own father disappeared from her life when she was quite young, after his divorce from her mother, she feels a particular connection to the case. She and Pete head for Yellowstone National Park, site of the alleged grizzly attack. In the meantime, Celine’s son Hank is conducting his own investigation into his mother’s teenage years, a time she does not like to speak about.

In lesser hands, Celine could have been cutesy or too precious, but Heller’s style is always sincere, wise and open-hearted, with a pronounced tinge of melancholy. Early in the book, we learn that Celine’s two sisters have recently passed away, and the book takes place in 2002, when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (Celine is a New Yorker) have recently left their mark. As she and Pete walk down a street at night in a small town, under a starless sky, she reflects on her chosen career:

It occurred to her as they walked that they were looking for a father who had disappeared more than two decades ago, but that he had truly left his child’s life long before that, that the young woman had grown up for all intents and purposes fatherless. As she did. That finding him now might resolve something in the woman’s heart but would not change the essential sadness. And that was the business she was in. She had had to accept it long ago: that her job was enabling just such reunions. That though they could not change someone’s childhood, still—there was a great raw need in her clients to know their parents and to meet them again. There was something in that resolution that was very important. To the child, and often to the parent. She certainly knew about that. And sometimes they—the parent and the child—started again. Rarely did it work, but sometimes it did. And then a child would have a mother and a mother a daughter.

The saddest part was that parents would keep disappearing, and children would cry themselves to sleep night after night, for months, for years. And that mothers would have their babies taken from them before they had a chance to smell the tuft of soft hair, their ears, before they had a chance to say, “Oh how I love you! Forever and ever.” That the baby was taken before she had a chance to kiss her and wrap her properly in her arms.

There are a great many mysteries in Celine, some of which get resolved and a few of which don’t. It’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this book and not wishing they could spend more time with its fascinating heroine. Indeed, Heller has revealed in interviews that Celine is based on his late mother, Caroline. “When I started writing this book, I wrote with the hope to spend another year with her,” he said. His novel is an extraordinary tribute, and very much worth reading.

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