Searching for Sarah, by Phillip Vega [Review]

                This book is really more about the main narrator, Tom, searching for Nina – his sister. The story opens with Tom and his family preparing to dispose of Nina’s ashes, after her sudden death from a heart attack in her mid-50s. The story is then told in a series of flashbacks, some from Tom’s point of view and some from Nina’s, as we learn about Nina’s life. Among her effects are a seemingly endless, but undated, series of journals where Nina recorded her life. As Tom reads through Nina’s journal entries, the author takes us to the time and place where those events happened and we experience Nina’s history.

                The hook for the story (and this is not a spoiler) is that Tom is the only person who doesn’t know that Nina is a lesbian, and has had a long-term relationship with Sarah. When Nina’s will mentions that Tom and his wife, Gabi (who knows), should include Sarah in the funeral planning, Tom has no idea who Sarah is, or why she is important to Nina. When Tom and Gabi are unable to contact Sarah, they make inquiries, but the search for Sarah is not nearly as important for Tom as his search for the true Nina, whom he didn’t know. As we learn more and more about Nina’s life, it becomes less and less plausible that Tom didn’t know (and that Nina never told him, and that his wife and kids never told him, and that his mother never told him . . . ). While this is the main premise of the book, it lacks emotional impact because it is so unbelievable.

                The snippets of Nina’s life are sometimes poignant as she lives through a failed marriage, acknowledges and accepts her sexuality, and finds the love of her life. There is occasional tension, including a blow up with her mother, but the information is mostly routine, if pretty well-written. The author gives us the lead-up to some lesbian sex scenes, but stops short of anything graphic. Many passionate kisses and rushes to the bedroom, followed by the mellow aftermath. It’s a very PG-13 rated story.

                While the writing is generally clean and peppered with humor, the author has a habit of switching between first person and third person narratives, as we get a peek into Nina’s journals, then jump to a flashback of the events. It’s never clear whether Tom is reading all of the details from the flashback sequences in Nina’s journals, or if some of them are only for the benefit of the reader. The device of using the journals as Tom’s window into the hidden life of his lesbian sister works for the most part.

                What doesn’t work so well is the author’s lengthy descriptions of Nina’s career in a Manhattan law firm. The facts are mostly wrong about what really happens in a law firm, how a litigator’s life really happens, and how the Supreme Court works. (Sorry, Mr. Vega, but cases are not tried at the U.S. Supreme Court, and associates who do the research for an argument at the Court don’t get any glory if their firm wins.) The author tries to set up a major tension point in the sparring between Nina and Lincoln, the nephew of the firm’s founder and senior partner. Lincoln is a cad and a bigot in a very cartoonish way. He attempts to undermine Nina, who always comes out on top. Nina jumps from First Amendment cases to mergers to employment litigation to tax cases and tries dozens of cases in court. It’s a very LA Law / Allie McBeal view of legal practice. There is never any real tension, and the pages devoted to Nina’s law firm heroics come off as unnecessary filler, without any dramatic value, and generally miss the mark. The fact that Nina is an amazingly talented lawyer, capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, doesn’t make her death any more (or less) tragic.

                The last quarter of the book actually involves Tom’s search for Sarah. The narrative is intentionally tear-jerky. Tom has no revelations about his gay sister, nor about his own feelings concerning gay relationships. You get the feeling that Tom would have been fine with Nina’s sexuality all along, and you’re angry with her that she (and everyone else) kept it a secret from the clueless Tom. It’s a tragic story, but one that should have more emotional impact than it does. The fact that Tom accepts Sarah as if his own sister-in-law in the end is supposed to show some Earth-shaking change in Tom, but it really doesn’t.

                The read is pleasant enough and many of the stories about Nina’s life are well-written and interesting scenes. But they are just isolated scenes. We never really understand why Nina was so afraid to tell Tom the truth about her and Sarah. Toward the end of her life, she and Sarah were planning a wedding, set a date, and printed up invitation cards. But Tom didn’t know any of this was happening? Really?) Readers looking for a light introduction to lesbian relationships seen through the eyes of a male character and from a male author may find this an easy and entertaining story. It’s the equivalent of an after-school special about accepting gay love. The point gets made, but the drama is missing.

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