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Friday
May042012

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Published by Unbridled Books on May 1, 2012

Returning to his hometown in Florida to report a story despite his susceptibility to heatstroke, journalist Gavin Sasaki learns from his sister Eileen that a ten-year-old girl, Chloe Montgomery, may be his daughter. Chloe looks like a younger Eileen and has the last name of Gavin's former girlfriend. Gavin hasn't seen Anna Montgomery since she dropped out of high school, when Gavin was in a jazz quartet with Anna's sister, Sasha. Rattled by the discovery and under the gun to produce good stories or perish in the next round of newsroom layoffs, Gavin begins to play roulette with his career by fabricating sources and quotations.

Meanwhile, a third member of Gavin's former jazz combo, Daniel Smith, is in Utah negotiating with a meth dealer to pay a large debt. Daniel is now a Florida cop. The novel's opening scene lets the reader know that the debt is somehow related to Anna, but its exact nature remains a mystery until much of the story has been told. The final member, piano and sax player Jack Baranovsky, is still in Florida, making a contribution to the story as a pill addict who knows more about Anna's situation -- and his own involvement in it -- than he's prepared to tell Gavin.

Why is Anna on the run? Why does everyone but Gavin seem to know that she was pregnant when she left school? Why is her baby turning up in Florida ten years later? How does acclaimed jazz guitarist Liam Deval fit into Anna's plight? These are the absorbing questions that kept me reading. The novel fills in the backstory as it progresses. Eventually the pieces fit together tightly, leaving the reader to worry about the present danger that occupies the last third of the novel.

Unlike many modern stories of suspense, The Lola Quartet doesn't stretch the bounds of credibility with an outlandish plot. Everything that happens seems real, and that credibility heightens the novel's tension. The characters are equally realistic: they gamble, they use drugs, they ignore inconvenient truths, they betray friends. Their well-developed personalities, complete with failings and flaws, add to the story's authenticity.

The novel's fault is that it builds toward a climax that seems anti-climactic. The real action occurs offstage, perhaps because it is too predictable to make it worth describing. A bit of added drama near the end focuses on a character who has played a minor role until that point; it seems oddly out of place. On the other hand, I wouldn't categorize this novel as a traditional thriller. It is more a story of guilty secrets, of relationships that evolved over time, a novel of characters who are overtaken by events they feel powerless to control. Still, the storyline wraps up too neatly. Given the hardships the characters have endured, it is difficult to accept that their lives work out so well by the end of the novel. The characters are not unscarred, their lives do not suddenly become idyllic, but -- despite Gavin's hand-wringing and moralizing at the end -- the characters resolve their problems more easily than I would have expected.

Despite my mild disappointment with the novel's ending, I admired the characterizations and enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel's fluid writing. The Lola Quartet isn't everything it tries to be but it is nonetheless an entertaining, well-written story.

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