20 April 2012

The Lola Quartet (Emily St. John Mandel)

I read Emily St. John Mandel's third novel, The Lola Quartet, in one go on a February sick day, with big, sweet recent-addition-kitty Benny by my side. I'm almost glad for the cold that'd stomped me flat, as I would have been decidedly irked to put it aside (and the next day, I read Zone One! Best cold ever).

While I cannot remember the context in which I heard Mandel referred to as a "stealth mystery writer," it's the perfect description. Like Margaret Atwood's sci-fi or Joyce Carol Oates's horror, her novels escape the mass-market paperback racks to be shelved in Literary Fiction, but they're structured like white-knuckle thrillers, full of secrets, dangers, and page-turning revelations. (Really, I dare you to stop reading this book after the first short chapter.) They've just got the value-add of first-rate prose and believable, technical-sense-of-pathetic characters.

She's also adept at driving a narrative from multiple, intertwined points of view. In Quartet, these follow the members of the title jazz combo, whose lives diverged after high school graduation but who find themselves coming back together a decade later. It's a chance meeting and a cell-phone photograph that spurs the action. Gavin Sasaki, now a New York City journalist, is shocked to learn he may have a daughter by his then-girlfriend, Anna, who disappeared one night without saying goodbye. And when he thinks about it, maybe he knew she was pregnant--maybe his  younger self just chose to disregard the knowledge. Disturbed by his sin of omission, he's soon torpedoed his career, and crawls back to his Florida hometown during the foreclosure-ridden summer of 2008. There he reconnects in tense and tentative ways with his fellow performers: haunted addict Jack, bitter cop Daniel, and Anna's half-sister, late-shift waitress Sasha. The question of what happened to Anna and her child is answered early on, but the implications play out slowly and suspensefully.

Like the wandering compositions of the music they shared, the Lola Quartet's individual stories alternate in prominence, sometimes sharply apparent, sometimes just serving as background. And the ending--appropriate to the genre--is like a major seventh chord, a partial and unsettling resolution.

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