Like much of Barbara Gowdy’s previous work, Helpless is a love story. It is far from a straightforward one, however. Instead, Gowdy takes readers into the world of a child-abducting pedophile.
We watch Ron, an appliance repairman and vintage vacuum-cleaner collector, stalk and abduct nine-year-old Rachel Fox. With no witnesses or signs of a struggle, Rachel is gone without a trace. This sets the stage for a difficult and thrilling ride as Celia, Rachel’s single mother, searches for her missing daughter, and Ron works to control his obsession.
Characters are well developed, and by the end of the book there is quite a sense of familiarity with even the secondary characters, but not the emotional attachment to them that one expects from a Barbara Gowdy book. The reader feels a sense of revulsion toward Ron simply because of his attraction to little girls, yet he never quite comes across as truly dangerous. Even when his sexual feelings for Rachel edge closer to the surface, he never seems likely to cross the line. He gives Rachel everything she could want, other than her freedom, and does everything he can to keep himself in the role of loving protector. Even though he is helpless to control his feelings, he knows his actions are wrong and in the end does what is necessary to set things right.
Helpless works as a look at obsessive love, but its lack of tension or plot twists keeps it from being a truly compelling read. Gowdy has the skills to make even the most uncomfortable subject matter readable, but with Ron she seems to play things a bit too safe. Love is a messy business, especially when it ignores moral and social boundaries; unfortunately, Helpless is just a bit too tidy for its own good.