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Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love

Published by Crown on March 21, 2017

Novels that focus on gangs and inner city crime are trendy, but Lola stands apart from the crowd by focusing on a 26-year-old woman who sees the gang from a female perspective. The woman, of course, is the titular Lola. She has a secret that is revealed in a surprising moment about 50 pages into the story. Without spoiling the secret, I can say that it causes the reader to rethink the nature of the central character.

Garcia belonged to Kim before, but now he’s Lola’s man. Garcia is regarded as the top man in the Crenshaw Six. Lola used to date Kim’s older brother, back when he was the top man, but she moved on to Garcia after Kim’s brother was murdered. Lola understands that playing a subordinate role is the key for a woman to survive in the world of gangs, but she’s too smart to be content.

Garcia is offered an opportunity to move the Crenshaw Six to a considerably higher place in the gang hierarchy, but at considerable risk, particularly to Lola, whose life (according to the enforcer who offers the job) will be taken as retribution if the gang screws up. It is when the mission doesn’t go well that we learn Lola’s secret.

After that, the story is about Lola’s quest to score the $4 million she needs to save her life, and about a series of unfortunate encounters with rival drug gangs, a powerful drug cartel, the police, neighborhood nuisances, and Lola’s mother. Each event in a sequence of unfortunate events places Lola in an even more precarious position. Balanced against that plot is Lola’s confrontation with the expectations of affluent white society as she tries to rescue a neighborhood girl from a life of abuse.

A key character is Lola’s brother Hector, who has been having sex with a girl whose brother is in a rival gang. Hector has a decency that some of the other gangbangers lack, and while he is Lola’s brother, it is Lola’s job to enforce order when that decency prevents Hector from doing his job. The complexity of the family and gang relationships is one factor that sets this novel apart from most gang stories.

Police officers in Lola are generally portrayed as decent people, not as stereotyped heroes or villains, although a couple of bent cops add new twists to the plot. Even rich white people, for whom Lola has little sympathy, are portrayed sympathetically. Lola perceives “every stranger as a fatal struggle” but is often surprised by their lack of malicious intent.

The novel is written in the third person, but generally allows the reader to see the world from Lola’s perspective. Lola’s past is tragic, her environment is horrifying, but it is the only life and environment that Lola has, and while she shows no inclination to leave it, she is determined to conquer it. She is smart, cunning, and resourceful. Lola’s insight into the gang members and men in general contributes to her efforts to control them.

Parts of the novel, primarily the parts that discuss child abuse, are sad, but the sadness contributes to the novel’s power. The discussions are never graphic, but they are not hidden from view, so particularly sensitive readers might not be a good fit for the novel.

The narrative tends to overdo statements like “Lola wonders whether she will be alive tomorrow” or “Lola wonders whether she will ever eat another pizza.” Occasional references to Lola’s concern about her future are fine, but we don’t need to be reminded on every page that Lola’s future is precarious. Lola also tends to overdo her fretting about her position in the world. Still, those are my only complaints about a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The surprising complexity of shifting relationships gives the story greater depth than it appears to have on its surface. By most standards, Lola is not a good person, and some readers will dislike the novel for that reason. By the standards that define her existence in “a world that doesn’t want her,” Lola might be a better person than most. Readers who are open to that distinction will probably like Lola as a person and as a novel.


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