The Boy on the Bus by Deborah Schupack
Imagine that you’ve sent your son off to school, the boy you’ve always known, only to have him return as someone else. He’s different somehow, changed, and though you feel this to be true, you can find little physical evidence to prove your intuition. Is it in your mind or is something actually amiss? It’s every parent’s nightmare that their child might suddenly disappear and in The Boy on the Bus, Deborah Schupack explores how that nightmare might come true for one mother and her family.
When Charlie Carroll returns from school one day, Meg Landry is certain that this boy is not the son she sent off in the morning. She acknowledges that there are physical similarities -– the hair and eye color are the same -– but there’s just something different about him. It seems that he’s grown into his face over the course of the day and the asthma that’s plagued the child since birth no longer restrains his being. Meg’s first instincts are to gather her family together -– Jeff, the boy’s father who spends most of his time working in Canada, and Katie, their thirteen-year-old daughter who is away at boarding school -– and figure out exactly what’s happened to Charlie. Neither Jeff nor Katie can pinpoint any specific differences about the boy, though they agree that he has changed. It’s up to Meg to find out how.
However, we never find out how Charlie is different. Neither does Meg, for that matter, as she starts to wonder if maybe the changes are inside her own head. Whether Schupack intends it or not, this nearly indistinguishable change in the child emerges as the theme of the book. Not only does the author question how well we really know our children, as Meg pushes Jeff to answer detailed questions about their son, but she puts forth the notion that our children can change at any point, without our input, and perhaps not in ways of which we’d approve. “Imagine, [Meg] thought, children as approximations. Then again, in a sense they were. Each time your child returned home, he was an approximation of who you had sent out into the world that morning. And each morning, he was an approximation of who you’d tried to seal with a kiss the night before.” Though Katie might be accused of the same sort of change, her transformation occurs away from her family, and though Meg admits that she may no longer know her daughter well, Katie is able to separate herself from her family. The story could be interpreted as Charlie’s reach for independence, but it remains to be seen how successful he is under Meg’s watch.
Unfortunately, Schupack’s writing style does little to help solve the mystery surrounding Charlie. Much of the story is haunted by an ethereal tone, never providing a clear picture of what is going on and making what is mostly Meg’s narrative read like a dream. The exposition is almost skeletal and the dialogue doesn’t feel true, leaving the novel with the feel of a short story whose more detailed parts were left out in order fit more elemental parts into a limited space. Schupack’s words may be poetic at times -– “But she was porous with exhaustion,” she says of Meg. “Porous as coral. Sea and sand sweeping in, sweeping out, eroding, returning such a thing as coral to the ocean. Undertows, riptides, drifting tides. Drifting in and out.” -– but this gauzy quality makes other scenes just seem weird. With no explanations for the characters’ actions, it’s difficult to tell in which direction the author is trying to lead us and such scenes, like the one in which Meg and Jeff search for the real Charlie’s body, serve only to create a confusing atmosphere.
Despite the confusion, Schupack does hit on something real here. Can we ever protect our children from change? And when that change occurs, will we recognize them for themselves or will we be only be able to see the difference? The entire story can be read as a metaphor for Charlie’s venture to be a more grown up individual, someone in search of independence, changing into someone who doesn’t need his mother as much anymore. From Meg’s end, she must decide whether she can accept this new version of her son; if she is unable to bring back the boy she has known in the past will the new boy, an approximation of her son, be enough? Regrettably, Schupack’s story falls short, failing to answer the questions she poses to her characters. The potential is there, but is never quite actualized in this quasi-mystery. Life may not provide the answers to these questions, but for Meg, Charlie, Jeff, and Katie, Schupack owes us some sort of resolution.
The Boy on the Bus by Deborah Schupack