Friday, January 20, 2012

Review: The Lola Quartet

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel, slated for publication May 15, 2012, is one of the most anticipated books of the year. (Shelf Awareness, The Millions, National Post.) Is it worth the advance praise? It depends on what you’re looking for in a novel.

Gavin Sasaki is a young newspaperman doing fairly well for himself working at the second-largest paper in New York City. When a story takes him to his hometown in Florida, however, he finds out something that unhinges him: there is a ten-year-old girl who looks just like his sister at that age. He becomes obsessed with the idea that his high-school girlfriend had been pregnant, as rumoured, when she disappeared 10 years ago.

Thus begins the story of a strange amalgam. The Lola Quartet of the title was a jazz group that Gavin played at his performing-arts high school. His girlfriend was the younger sister of one of the members. As Gavin tries to discover what happened all those years ago—if he hadn’t become a journalist, he would have become a private detective—he looks up each of the other members of the quartet, who have all trod their own bumpy paths in life.

Gavin’s dogged pursuit of the truth drives the mystery and the narrative of The Lola Quartet, which I found almost unremittingly depressing. Gavin is a truly interesting character, but we rarely see his strengths, and he rarely spends any time feeling good about anything. The same is true for all the other characters. The initial event all those years ago, a pregnancy that causes Gavin’s girlfriend to run away, went from bad to worse when a drug dealer entered the scene.

St. John Mandel is an excellent writer, tautly painting scenes with her words, but the scenes have barely a breath of air in them. The only time the story got humming was when Gavin really started thinking like a detective. But soon enough he became befuddled again and things went awry once more.

If you don’t require optimism in your reading or like your noir plenty black, then you will enjoy The Lola Quartet. Mystery fans who like loose ends tied up in a way that produces satisfaction should look elsewhere.

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