Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

The Lola Quartet by the immensely talented Emily St. John Mandel, might go down as one of the best captures of the malaise that attended the Great Recession of 2008. As St. John Mandel earlier novel, The Singer’s Gun, proved, she has a special talent for setting the mood and tone in a novel and she works that same magic here in a story that essentially is, above all else, the rootlessness of young adult life.

Gavin Sasaki is a young journalist in New York City at precisely the time when the newspaper industry is in deep decline. The axe has been falling on co-workers all around him and when he eventually gets found out for lies he has been systematically working into his stories, Gavin knows he too is on his last leg. Fired ingloriously from his job, Gavin’s last resort is to return to his hometown in Florida, where his sister Eilo is running a successful business negotiating the final sales of foreclosed homes.

Back in Florida, shortly after the sale of one such foreclosed home, Eilo happens to have taken a picture of a young girl who bears a striking resemblance to Gavin. This one picture brings back a whole host of memories for him. Gavin remembers his high school girlfriend, Anna Montgomery, and a rumor that she might have been pregnant before permanently moving away to be with her aunt in Georgia. Could this little girl whom Eilo spotted, then be his child? Armed with his journalist’s nose to sniff out a good story, Gavin is determined to find out. The problem is there are many in town who don’t share Gavin’s enthusiasm to ferret out the truth.

It turns out that Anna is in deep trouble having stolen a large sum of money from a drug dealer in Utah. She is on the run with help from a few of Gavin’s old high school friends. The chain of events that will eventually lead to murder all begins with one ill-timed photograph. Each person involved in the story reads that action differently and acts with the information he or she has. If there’s one problem in The Lola Quartet, it is that it gets hard to believe that so many men go to such extraordinary lengths to protect Anna. All in all though, the book is an incredibly taut sequence of events told breathlessly in the style that Emily St. John Mandel has effectively mastered. That The Lola Quartet also shines light on life’s early disillusionments is a bonus.

The Lola Quartet is also about the plod that attends daily life after high school, about dreams and dashed expectations. In one beautifully realized scene, a guitar hopeful from Gavin’s old high school worries he is not all that great and eventually just retreats back home to drugs and a mundane existence. “I miss everything about high school and I’m not the musician I thought I was, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, jazz has always been my life but now it’s slipping away from me and my talent isn’t going to be enough,” he worries. Any young adult who bumbles into college and life beyond, can totally relate to the cast of characters St. John Mandel sets out so beautifully in her new novel.

“The truth is we don’t all turn into the men we had hoped to become,” says a character in the book. As The Lola Quartet wonderfully shows, this much is certainly true. Of course things get even more dangerous when there is no clear plan sketched out--even for what you hope to become. As each one of the characters in The Lola Quartet realizes, when all one does is drift, the eventual stagnation that sets in can be stifling and merciless. 

Thank you to the publisher, Unbridled Books, for making a digital copy of the ARC available through Netgalley. Full Disclosure:  I follow the author on Twitter.