Evelyn Piper was a pseudonym used by Merriam Modell, a Cornell graduate who worked at various times as a model, a secretary, and a writer. Many of Modell’s short stories appeared in The New Yorker; one of her earliest novels, The Innocent, won an Edgar Award; two of her most famous novels, The Nanny and Bunny Lake is Missing, were both filmed. Modell was not quite a famous or prodigious writer, penning a dozen or so novels and a number of shorter works, though the two novels that were immortalized on the silver screen have gained a bit more of a lasting reputation.
Blanche Lake is a young, unwed single mother who’s traded life in rural Connecticut for a new job in New York City. She’s only been in the City for a few days, though she did manage to get her daughter Felicia (“Bunny”) into a premier daycare. Like most mothers, she expects her daughter to learn in a safe and secure environment while she’s off at work, but when she arrives to pick up her daughter Bunny can’t be found. In fact, no record of Bunny can be found. Blanche doesn’t have any pictures of her daughter, or any toys in her apartment, because they’re still in storage. She doesn’t know anyone in the city who could vouch for Bunny’s existence except for her difficult mother, who Blanche doesn’t want to entangle in police business.
In short, Bunny Lake is missing. And nobody but Blanche Lake believes she ever existed in the first place.
Thus begins a taut psychological thriller, as Blanche desperately tries to convince someone, anyone, of her daughter’s plight despite the lack of evidence and a rising uncertainty. Even the mental health specialist the police bring in to calm her down doesn’t believe her, finding her growing panic palpable but not enough to overturn any proof of Bunny’s existence. Things continue to spiral out of control, as Blanche seeks out other avenues that may help her cause—the creep who runs the local “doll hospital,” the local writer she befriended who thinks his wife asked Blanche to pull a prank on him. The atmosphere is dark and claustrophobic, seen through the perspective of Blanche’s growing paranoia, then shifting to other characters at key moments. The prose is jumpy at times, almost stream of consciousness in its frenetic aggression, taking you deep within Blanche’s manic psyche and the confused and confounded emotional spaces of the other characters.
Blanche identifies heavily with her invisible scarlet letter, bearing her burdens and growing to expect no aid from anyone offering it. As an unwed woman with a child born out of wedlock, she is one of the lowest of the low in 1950s society. It’s part of the reason she doesn’t have any evidence of Bunny—she kept her daughter hidden from even her landlord, knowing the kind of reputation it would give her—and is part of the reason she expects her daughter’s kidnapping to get brushed under the rug. The novel toys with that element of social identification and how it relates to the missing persons theme, mentioning the old Paris Exposition legend where nobody will help the young woman find her missing mother. No small surprise that the Feminist Press picked it up for its Femmes Fatales series, since it deals with a woman marginalized by men in power, making judgment calls based on her social status and increasing hysteria.
The other characters see Blanche as either an unwed mother or a crazed woman—in reality, she’s both, toying with a stolen revolver and dreaming of future vengeance against those who won’t help her find her daughter. Should Bunny even exist in the first place. There’s some mystery even for the reader, and I had to question what was going on several times as the novel continued its hallucinogenic journey down one woman’s personal hell. It all seems so realistic: a missing form here, a lack of toys there, an absence of witnesses, and every one of Blanche’s 24 hours of frantic searching becomes just another sign of her mental instability. Meanwhile, her paranoia stems from everyone else calling her crazy, a mother’s desperate quest for her missing daughter. The more frenetic she searches, the less anyone believes her, and so the vicious cycle continues.
In terms of fraught tales of suspense, Bunny Lake is Missing is a knockout. It places Blanche Lake in a desperate quest to find her daughter, then twists the knife when no one is willing to believe her. The anxiety ramps up as more and more time goes by and fewer people are willing to help in the search for a missing girl who many don’t believe exists, a creeping feeling of terror and panic which is conveyed from character to reader by its claustrophobic and intense prose. Readers who enjoy a heaping dose of suspense may love this riveting novel: it keeps you guessing about Blanche’s state of mind as her search goes careening out of control.
Title: Bunny Lake is Missing
Author: Evelyn Piper (Merriam Modell)
Publisher: The Feminist Press at CUNY
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $1.99 (Amazon sale)
ISBN/ASIN: 1558614745 / B009UYHBUE
First published: 1957