Unknown Caller

Louisiana State University (Yellow Shoe Fiction), 2016

Beginning with an aggravating phone call, a strange request, and the sudden disappearance of a mother and her daughter, Unknown Caller moves backwards in time and across several continents to tell a funny, moving, and genuinely surprising story about families, misunderstandings, secrets, falls from grace, and chances for redemption.

… Intricate characters and a deeply satisfying plot. I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

— Margot Livesey

Unknown Caller is an extraordinary and quite wonderful novel. Its suspense runs on the surprises wrought by very real characters who happen to be impossible people–I couldn’t stop reading. Vibrant and wildly perceptive, the book moves us to contemplate the shifting nature of what’s true.

—Joan Silber, Fools and Size of the World

We fans of Debra Spark’s work love her dearly for her rich characters, dazzlingly complex emotional landscapes, and gentle irony. I’m glad to say that all of these things are found in joyous abundance in Unknown Caller, which advances its human entanglements in the oblique way that a jigsaw puzzle comes together–a piece of blue sky here, a curl of a sail there–until, voila, we find ourselves holding the whole picture in our hands.

—Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies and Aracadia

Intricate, Pinteresque, and wholly compelling, Debra Spark’s new novel spans countries and decades, messes with time, and continues to upend everything you thought you knew about the characters. It’s masterful and I devoured it.

— Lily King, Euphoria and Father of the Rain

Debra Spark’s Unknown Caller is a pageant of mysteries: the breathless mystery of its page-turning narrative, the deeper mystery of the affections that connect her far-flung characters, and the abiding mystery of how this virtuosic author has infused her story with such an embarrassment of emotional riches. It’s the kind of book you’d rather be reading than doing whatever else you’re doing. I enjoyed it immensely.

—Steve Stern, The Pinch and The Book of Mischief

Unknown Caller is a kaleidoscopic, wide-ranging novel about the fragility and durability of family and the near impossibility of knowing the truth about even the people closest to us. Moving unpredictably across the decades, Debra Spark illuminates the secret histories of her characters with uncommon insight and compassion.

— Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers and Little Children

Louisiana State University (Yellow Shoe Fiction), 2016

For as long Daniella has been married to Joel, someone has been calling at odd hours, and late at night. Daniella knows this caller to be Liesel, Joel’s first wife, a woman whose sudden departure a few months after their marriage devastated her husband. If Daniella picks up the phone, it is only to hand the receiver over to her husband. One day, Liesel calls to say she has decided to let Idzia, the seventeen-year-old daughter he has never met, visit their family for the summer.

Daniella and Joel prepare their young son for Idzia’s arrival, but when Joel goes to pick her up from the airport, Idzia isn’t there. Back at home, the phone calls stop and Joel, Daniella, and their son become haunted by the absence of two people who were never part of their lives to begin with.

Unknown Caller moves backward in time to uncover the details of Idzia and Liesel’s disappearance and the deeper puzzle of Liesel’s identity and why she abandoned a marriage for which she had seemed quite eager. Each chapter resolves the previous chapter’s mystery, while revealing another, larger riddle that must be deciphered. The result is a page-turner of a novel that ranges across continents to tell a funny, moving, and genuinely surprising story about families, misunderstandings, secrets, falls from grace, and chances for redemption.


“Just as you can never truly know everything about anyone — even those you hold most dear — you only think you know the who and why of Daniella, Joel, Liesel, and Idzia when you first meet them in Unknown Caller. In telling their stories, Debra Spark deftly demonstrates how shameful secrets, convenient lies of omission, and random coincidences can change lives forever. But every time you think, ‘Ah, now I see,’ the timeline dials back a notch and some new layer of backstory comes into view, revealing motivations you couldn’t have guessed at before. When I finished this book, I wanted to start over and see all the little clues I might have missed, but I was also jealous of my former self for getting to read it the first time.”

–Mary Laura Philpott, bookseller, Parnassus Books in Nashville.”

“An emotional and surprising story of a fractured family.

This novel is a nonchronological tale of the interwoven lives of Liesel, who is vivacious yet irresponsible; Joel, her ex-husband, who is staunch yet critical; their daughter, Idzia, who is artistic yet wounded; and their many dear friends and romantic loves. Five years after she leaves Joel, Liesel begins semiregularly calling him in the middle of the night to request child support. He’s willing to send money if he’s allowed to be a part of Idzia’s life—a request to which Liesel cannot bear to agree. After many years of these nighttime disruptions and many attempts on Joel’s part for legal intervention, Liesel is spurred by her life-threatening illness to concede to a visit. But on the planned day, 17-year-old Idzia never arrives, and Joel is left waiting at the Boston airport. What follows is an exploration of why: what led to this moment and what came after. In vibrant prose, she describes Liesel’s life before she met Joel, when she was an entirely different person but no less unsatisfied; Joel’s impatience, which compelled Liesel to have an affair, causing their marriage to fall apart; and the no-less-imperfect relationships that came after. The story’s structure, jumping back and forth in time and place, allows these authentic, flawed characters to be fully fleshed out. Spark (Pretty Girl, 2012, etc.) offers nuggets of poignant wisdom, such as when a dear family friend explains to Idzia, in the most intense hour of her life, “At the moment, your resources for dealing with pain are unequal to your pain. The challenge, for the rest of your life, will be to change that.” Spark’s principal accomplishment, though, is the care she takes to create multidimensional characters who behave in unexpected, truthful ways. Their fullness and intricacy gracefully illustrate how every story has many versions, every memory many interpretations.

A book of candor and complexity that captures human relations with heart-rending accuracy.”

— Kirkus Review

“A+++ writing.”

— Liberty Hardy, “All the Books” podcast, Book Riot

“ a story that crosses decades and two marriages, and elegantly combines a family drama and a suspense thriller.”

— Book Page, “What We’re Reading”

“We all know, to paraphrase Whitman, that each of us contains multitudes. Without any contradiction, we are different versions of ourselves when we speak to our bosses, when we see a stranger fall on the sidewalk, when we’re in the dark whispering to a partner and when we answer a telemarketer during dinner. These variations trouble us more or less, but we—usually—recognize a continuity. We know what makes us us. And we usually assume, or hope, that other people see us as we see ourselves—at least the best of ourselves.

Many novels tackle the problem of the unknowable other. Some shift among points of view that leave us unsteady in what we think we know. Too often, these unstable perspectives can feel contrived rather than revealing something true about how people really live. Then, a novel comes along that not only thrills but questions everything we think we know about how we come across to others, who we are when we’re left alone and how well we can possibly know those closest to us. One that truly shows how varied our many selves can be, depending on what we allow to show.

While she’s published three previous novels and a collection of stories, I hadn’t heard of Debra Spark. In one of those moments of aimless searching online, the cover of Unknown Caller, her new novel published by Louisiana State University Press’s Yellow Shoe Fiction series*, jumped out at me and its premise lured me in: a man receives frequent late-night calls from his first wife, somewhere out in the world with the daughter he’s never been allowed to meet. The jarring, demanding calls dwindle until she breaks the silence with another middle-of-the-night demand from an undisclosed location: she wants to send their seventeen year old to him for the summer.

Joel had been married to Liesel for only five months, after which she fled without explanation. He had no idea she was pregnant until the first phone call five years later, demanding child support.

In normal families, a late-night call means only one thing: tragedy. A drunken mishap. A car crash. A heart finally giving out. Maybe a decapitation or a roadside bomb, the twenty-first-century offering, as it does, an escalating range of horrors.
But the Pearlmans are not a normal family. When the phone rings at 2:00 a.m. at their house, it is always her calling. From Geneva or Paris or London. They can never be sure where she’s taken up residence, only that the call will be long-distance and unpleasant.

When Idzia fails to show up at the airport and appears on no airline passenger list, Joel can’t contact her mother, and he’s not sure whether the whole proposal has been an elaborate hoax. He and his wife suffer a fresh wound at the absence of someone at the center of their lives whom they’ve never known. The calls cease.

Spark deftly shifts among perspectives and timeframes, from a farmhouse in Maine to a bakery in Paris, a run-down holiday motel in Barbados and a share-house and theater in London. She shows us, in sharp, page-turning prose, the ways that people’s perspectives shift and coalesce with time and absence, the ways new locations allow us to morph into the people we’d rather be, how easily we can slip out of ourselves if we’re willing to leave everything and everyone—even ourselves—behind.

Unknown Caller jolted me again and again as I ploughed through it, wanting nothing more than to be confined to my sofa until I finished. Then I spent many days inside the world of the novel, teasing out my feelings about the characters, experiencing a visceral pain at what they’d lost, putting new words in their mouths, giving them other chances to find a better way. I kept feeling their outrage, their confusion, their desire to be loved and understood. Spark rattled me even as she gave me one of my most pleasurable reads of the year.”

Coffee Break: Unknown Caller by Jennifer Levasseur

“In the Colby College professor Debra Spark’s “Unknown Caller,” a sharply hooked premise and well-conceived structure drive the considerable emotional suspense. Set partly in Maine, the novel tracks the fallout of a 2 a.m. phone call in which a doctor’s ex-wife informs him of the arrival by plane of the 17-year-old daughter he has never met.”

— New York Times Book Review