Missed Connections is the story of Christine Scarpa, the eldest daughter of a blue-collar Catholic family, who takes a job in an art gallery, moving into the Boston cultural scene of the 1960’s. Even such a bare summary of the central situation in the novel suggests a good deal of material that has become staple in American fiction: the distance between educated children and their working-class parents; woman’s escape from old roles and family expectations; the Catholic girl’s sexual initiation; the conflict between ethnic and American cultures; an individual’s coming of age as symbol for a generation’s experience. Ford, however, does not write an affirmative novel of obstacles overcome, nor does she indulge in nostalgia for the warmth and connectedness of the past. Although the story traverses familiar ground, it is told with a sharp eye and a spare technique that question the very effort to make simple meanings out of experience.
Ford uses the reader’s familiarity with conventional themes and characters to add depth to the story. The book opens in 1959. Christine Scarpa is seventeen, about to start her senior year in high school where she is taking a commercial course. (Her older brother Martin is entering a seminary, but no girl in her family has ever gone to college.) She has a summer job shelving books in the local library and knows that she is being watched by Sandy Cole, a slight, muscular, and intense young man who works in an auto-body shop. The cues—the commercial course, the library, the awareness of Sandy’s body—evoke whole realms of cultural meaning and make the conflicts apparent. Christine’s progressive intimacy with Sandy, however, leads neither to sex nor to marriage. The school year ends, the relationship ends, and Christine, answering a newspaper advertisement, takes a job without even asking about the salary.
The art gallery where she goes to work is run by Charlotte Grayling. She and her stepbrother Braden Smith represent old WASP Boston in its semi-conservative countercultural aspect. Charlotte’s customers are bankers and industrialists who are willing to do her a favor because her father was their lawyer. Braden, with whom she shares an apartment, researches archaeological finds, buys and sells old glass, and almost certainly has some other source of income about which Christine is too naïve to wonder. Charlotte gives Christine books to read, chooses clothes for her, uses her as a photographic model, and increasingly depends on her business sense to manage the gallery. Braden takes her to concerts and becomes her sexual partner. At home, Christine begins to notice the smell of old tomato sauce and the plaster saints jostling one another on the sideboard. Inevitably, she moves in with Charlotte and Braden, though she is still torn by the fear that her sister Anna will have an asthma attack in the night and die if Christine is not there to help her breathe.
At midbook, in 1967, a countermovement begins, and the patterns break. Parts of the old neighborhood are bulldozed for an interstate highway. Charlotte grows bored with the gallery; seventeen-year-old Anna is seeing Sandy Cole; brother Jimmy enlists in the Marines. Christine begins to think about her life and make decisions. She moves back home, where her mere presence seems to disturb Anna, who is by then Sandy’s wife.
In the relationship between Christine and Anna, Ford seems to suggest a kind of psychic vampirism, curiously reminiscent of Henry James. Always a slightly unstable person who looks at the world from her own angle, the vulnerable Anna is increasingly unsettled by...
(The entire section is 1484 words.)