Liese O’Halloran Schwarz crafts a family drama / mystery in What Could Be Saved. It’s set in current day Washington, D.C. as well as early 1970s Bangkok, Thailand. The Preston family—parents Genevieve and Robert and siblings Bea, Laura, and Phillip—go to Bangkok for dad’s career. He’s an engineer building bridges in a country just barely removed from the war in Vietnam. And the unthinkable happens. Phillip disappears one afternoon after judo class. 

Eventually the devastated family returns to the States, trying to resume their lives. And then after all this time, someone contacts Laura claiming to be Phillip. But is he really? And more importantly, what happened to him all those decades ago.

Once I started this audiobook, I wanted to listen all the time. Schwarz balances the likable characters with the prickly, and spools out just enough details to make you think you know. Until the corner turns and you’re at a dead end. 

The story mainly focuses on Laura in the present day and Genevieve in the past, with spare but vital details from Robert’s perspective. Schwarz also tells part of the story from a Thai servant’s eyes, which allows insight into the realities of life for the average Thai woman.

My conclusions

What struck me most was the way Schwarz drew a clear picture of Bangkok in the 1970s. She illustrates the class divides, colonialism, and the transitions from staid society to hippie culture. Of course, in both time periods the Preston family is full of secrets. All the while, I was anxious to know what happened to this boy lost in Bangkok. 

The sibling relationships rang true to me. Bea and Laura lose their brother and it unsettles them for decades. How does a kid regain a sense of safety and connectedness after that? Especially when their foundation—parental consistency—is also at risk. Laura’s process of finding herself is as much the theme here as finding Phillip again, and that mattered to me also.

And the truths about these parents … sheesh … there are good surprises awaiting readers. These parents are a literal mess, despite their “oh so proper” exterior. At first their casual neglect of the kids seems benign, until it becomes more dangerous. And all of that makes for good drama.

This is my first exposure to Schwarz, but certainly not my last. I like the way she mixes family drama, historical fiction, and mystery. And her characters are well drawn and realistic, given the extreme situation at the heart of the story.

Pair with another historical mystery like The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton or The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey.