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Emily St. John Mandel's "The Lola Quartet"

(click for larger version)
August 29, 2012
Emily St. John Mandel opens her new book, "The Lola Quartet," with an arresting image that leaves the reader powerless to do anything but turn the page.

Mandel maintains a high level of suspense throughout this fascinating novel that touches on a surprising number of subjects within one compelling story.

The main character, Gavin Sasaki, is a young journalist writing for the New York Star who romanticizes the past and fantasizes about winning a Pulitzer Prize. His life begins a downward spiral after his girlfriend moves out, the newspaper begins what promises to be a series of layoffs, and Gavin's sister shows him a picture of a young girl she met by chance who may be his daughter.

Gavin struggles to keep focused on life. He neglects a broken showerhead in his apartment and soon makes serious journalistic errors that lead to his dismissal. Jobless and eventually homeless, Gavin moves back to his hometown in Florida to live and work with his sister.

While Gavin is outwardly rebuilding his life, he secretly works to unravel the mystery of the identity of the young girl and what happened to Anna, his high school girlfriend who disappeared 10 years ago. His dangerous investigation leads him to reconnect with three fellow members of his high school jazz group, the Lola Quartet.

Emily St. John Mandel (click for larger version)
Mandel is especially talented at characterization. Her people feel genuine, and their often irrational decisions seem plausible and sometimes inevitable. The way Gavin completely destroys his promising career is frighteningly believable.

The secondary and minor characters are strongly depicted, hinting at much that is unsaid. The briefest character sketch suggests there could be an entire novel behind it.

One such character is a park ranger Gavin interviews for a story about the spread of pythons and other dangerous snakes in Florida suburbs. William Chandler's job is to track python sightings and log the information. When he reappears briefly in the story, readers learn that he is now risking his job by killing the pythons he finds rather than simply tracking them. The complexity of human motivations evident in Mandel's characters adds depth to the novel.

Mandel uses compelling images to heighten tension and reinforce themes. As Gavin's life in New York is falling apart, a showerhead leak escalates from a drip to a waterfall. His apartment fills with steam, and Gavin is again living in the hot, humid environment that he has always hated.

Gavin wanders into a half-empty housing development in Florida and notes the unfinished house frames, dirt driveways and abandoned construction equipment. Perhaps considering his journalism career, he wonders "Does a house still count as a ruin if it's abandoned before it's done?"

"The Lola Quartet" offers interesting vignettes of contemporary society, suspense, and unforgettable characters.

Emily St. John Mandel will discuss and sign "The Lola Quartet" Wednesday, Sept. 12, 7 p.m., at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave. Call 367-6731 for more information.

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