At the satisfying conclusion of Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Lola Quartet,” the exhausted protagonist, Gavin Sasaki, contemplates the suburbs at night as he drives north from Florida. He sees “a continuous centerless glimmering of lights, shadows of palm trees on parking lots, malls shining like beacons. . . . None of the cities had edges anymore, just a long slow reach across landscapes.”
The same is true for most of the characters in this elegant, hypnotic novel. Their edges are blurred, their identities hazy, their grip on truth as weak as their hold on each other. Take Gavin, a junior reporter for the New York Star. Depressed, disillusioned and fearing the next round of layoffs, Gavin begins to invent quotes to animate his stories. “If you tell a lie it’s easier to tell another,” he quickly realizes, and we have the queasy sense of truth slipping its moorings, of imminent disaster.
Menace has already arrived. The novel opens with 17-year-old Anna “living in hiding with an infant” and almost $118,000 in cash concealed in the baby’s stroller. We see her for an instant, and then we encounter a young man named Jack, whose “roommate has gone to Virginia to rescue a girl.” Finally, we meet Gavin, whose quest forms the core of the novel. Their lives are connected and will reconnect, but only gradually, as Mandel tells her engrossing story of youthful mistakes that spawn adult crimes.
Here Mandel perfects the tantalizing, sidelong approach to characters and events that was so effective in her previous novel, “The Singer’s Gun.” But she wisely constructs a leaner plot. A flashback shows us a group of students at a performing-arts high school in Florida who play jazz together as the Lola Quartet: Gavin on trumpet, Jack on saxophone, Daniel on bass and Sasha on drums. Sasha’s half-sister, Anna, is Gavin’s girlfriend and the school’s troubled, wayward beauty. After the group’s farewell performance, Anna disappears. Gavin hears a rumor that she has hit the road, pregnant.
Five years later, on a reporting assignment in Florida, Gavin visits his sister, who negotiates foreclosure deals with property owners. She shows him a photograph she recently took of a child who strongly resembles her. Like the creatures invading the Florida subdivisions (“pythons swimming in the canals sometimes, undulating ribbons with teeth”), Gavin’s past slithers into his shaky present, and his hunt for Anna begins. It leads him back to his old friends and into an underworld of drugs and violence where “you pay with money, or you pay with your family.” Mandel brilliantly modulates the heightening suspense in a novel that remains, above all, an elegy for lost — and perhaps only imagined — innocence.
Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer.
The LOLA QUARTET
By Emily St. John Mandel
Unbridled. 279 pp. $24.95