If the crime thriller, bildungsroman, and domestic realism genres all got together for drinks in a smoky blue-toned jazz club and went home in a needy haze of swamp heat, passing abandoned businesses and ignored newsstands, to have sweaty, intense mÃ©nage a trois sex, nine months later they would sire The Lola Quartet, the compelling third novel by Emily St. John Mandel, that asks a vital question: How far would you go for someone you love?
We begin with Anna, who has â€œfallen into a routine, or as much of a routine as a seventeen-year-old can reasonably fall into when sheâ€™s transient and living in hiding with an infant.â€ After a page we leave Anna and meet Jack, high on painkillers and roaring on a piano, his very pores guilt-thick from having imperiled an unnamed girl he cares for.
Then Gavin, ten years later, a wistfully anachronistic newspaperman in early 2009, when the economy had a nervous breakdown and the newspaper industryâ€™s hemorrhaging picked up speed. Gavin grew up wanting to be J.J. Gittes from Chinatown, but he ends up disgraced and fired, shortly after a visit to his Florida hometown. His sister, Eilo, has discovered he might have a daughter, and she might not be safe. This sends Gavin down the proverbial rabbit hole, consumed with thoughts of his possible and possibly endangered daughter, his troubled high school girlfriend Anna, and the fellow members from his high school jazz band, The Lola Quartet.
The story is deeply absorbing. While reading, I found myself completely immersed, as if I were intoxicated and watching a favorite film or TV seriesâ€”that underwater feeling you get when you are so close to the action that your heart pounds when Gavinâ€™s heart pounds, that you exclaim â€œOh shit!â€ when you discover the who and how and why of Anna stealing well over one hundred thousand dollars and disappearing into the gray life of prey, and that you sway to the inspired music Deval makes, that you want to reach out and replace the Vicodin in Jackâ€™s shaking hands with your lips, as if you could kiss the darkness away.
Mandel weaves suspense and action into a fairly introspective narrativeâ€”I was equally impressed by scenes in which nothing much externally occurs and scenes I would expect from a traditional crime thriller.
This often-tense story hopscotches from one Quartet member to another, even briefly delving into the occasional lead singer Taylorâ€™s unfulfilled adult life. I found her exchange with our primary protagonist, Gavin, to be a particularly poignant passage. How Gavin looked at her, realizing she was desperately bored with her comfortable yet hollow life, was chilling. For me, this was a more successfully rendered microcosm of our recession-age than the scenes of Gavin at work. The dying newspaperman motif seemed a little too familiar for me. I felt myself wanting to rush through those passages to get to Gavin at home, or in Florida.
However, I was intrigued by the way Gavin unraveled his careerâ€”mind soggy with worry about Anna and his maybe-daughter and the danger they could be in causing a little slip, a misnamed person, and the negotiations he has with himself to allow more imagined moments into his editorials, until he has spun a few people into existence, paired with their own perfect quotes, which ends with him abandoning a harrowing meeting with his editor, Julie, and the newspaperâ€™s personnel and legal departments heads.
Â Gavin read the quote over and over again. Seeing the words on the screen made them real, even though he hadnâ€™t sent them to anyone yet, even though this could still be undone. There had been two lapses now but turning back was still possible. There could still be an evening years or decades from now when he might look back at a strange period far earlier in his career, a few shadowy months before the Pulitzer but after his fiancÃ©e had left him when heâ€™d started to slide but pulled himself back just in time, two stories with small lies in them and then no more after that.
But everyone knew there would be more layoffs at the newspaper and the story as written was a dud, filler, a flightless bird, all facts and budget numbers and no humanity. The Rose Thomas quote was exactly the sort of thing a concerned parent would say. When you came down to it, he thought, it was a question of names again, the same as that shadow across his Florida story had been. It was something heâ€™d said, and he was almost certainly a father. Did it matter, did it actually matter that the words on the screen had been said by a parent named Gavin Sasaki, not a parent named Rose Thomas? He hadnâ€™t slept well since Florida. He was so tired tonight.
Itâ€™s so easy to ruin things. Sometimes itâ€™s astonishing.
Now, Anna. The catalyst, the Madonna, the mother, the girl-woman at the center of this novel. Desperate for escape and trapped states away from her Florida home, in, of all places, Utah, she changes everyoneâ€™s life in seconds, leaving an already-heartbroken Daniel with the drug dealer she stole from, Paul, the man with a goldfish neck tattoo weaving a polite brand of cruelty, who offered her and Daniel a place to live after they fled Florida. She is certainly a damsel, but Mandel fleshes her out, gives her gut-strength and towering desire and crippling flaws. Sasha, her half-sister, is another shiny example of the believable train-wreck, a somewhat isolated recovering gambler with a hard-eyed point of view, who is saved and shattered by Anna simultaneously.
Overall, I adored this novel. The Lola Quartet is a compelling read with complex characters and great suspense. It palms deep themes with a lively pace. It drips with the glory of jazz and noir and friendship and love. It haunts, like smoke, asking: How far would you go for someone you love?
Dawn West (b. 1987) is a fiction writer living in Ohio.