Book Review: The Lola Quartet, by Emily St. John Mandel

The Lola Quartet
by Emily St. John Mandel 
Unbridled Books
288 pages

“How often do you get to lose everything and start all over again?” ~ The Lola Quartet

When we meet him at the beginning of The Lola Quartet, Gavin Sasaki has, indeed, lost everything. His wife has left after having a miscarriage, he’s been fired from his job as a journalist for fabricating people and quotes, and he’s been evicted from his apartment.

“The point was that Gavin had opened a door, cracked it just slightly, and he could see through to the disgrace and shadows on the other side. If you tell a lie it’s easier to tell another.”

The Lola Quartet‘s very settings are also in the midst of so much true-to-life economic loss: New York City in early 2009, Florida in the wave of the housing collapse. It is to his hometown in Florida where Gavin returns in shame, working for his sister’s business of giving foreclosed homeowners “cash for keys” to their property, and remembering his high school glory days when he and a group of close friends formed and performed as a music group called The Lola Quartet.

As these things tend to go, each member of The Lola Quartet has also had their dreams foreclosed on, too – sometimes by their own doing, sometimes by their the actions of others.

“They sat together in the basement, Jack and Sasha and Daniel with Gavin ostentatiously absent, and it seemed to Jack that their missing instruments were like ghosts. He’s been thinking a lot about ghosts lately, after a movie he’d seen, and the thought of a translucent ghost saxophone sitting next to him was oddly appealing.

The silence was awkward. He thought of these people as his closest friends, but it seemed that without music there wasn’t much to talk about. He was seized by a mad desire to confide in them – I miss everything about high school and I’m not the musician I thought I was, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, jazz has always been my life but now it’s slipping away from me and my talent isn’t going to be enough – but he couldn’t imagine how to begin.”

There’s a bit more to this once close-knit quartet – MUCH more, as it turns out. Music is just one of the connections holding this group together after so many years. (“…when all lies in disarray there’s still order in music.”) Those connections and the losses that result from them seamlessly form the plot of  Emily St. John Mandel’s incredibly well-written, suspenseful third novel.

This foursome has a history together, beginning with Gavin’s relationship with his high school girlfriend Anna Montgomery, who disappeared during The Lola Quartet’s last high school concert amid rumors that she was pregnant. Suspecting that the child was his (a suspicion he’s harbored in the decade since he last saw Anna) and fueled by a chance encounter that his sister Eilo had with the child as part of her work in the real estate business, Gavin puts his investigative newspaper reporting skills to the ultimate test as he dons his fedora (literally) and tries to put his life together again while piecing together his past.

Gavin is a rather sympathetic, there-for-but-the-grace-of-God-go-I character. This is more than the typical “you can go home again” novel; it delves deeper, for Gavin’s home has changed (symbolized by Florida’s issues with exotic wildlife) yet remained the same (the oppressive heat still has the power to bring him literally to his knees) yet morphed into a place that, by the end of the novel, is just the same as any other town in America.

In the hands of a lesser talented novelist, The Lola Quartet could easily hit a wrong chord.  As a novel that is dubbed as “literary noir,” there is a lot of mystery involved here, much territory to cover, and more than a few characters to connect the dots with for the reader. Fortunately for her readers, The Lola Quartet was written by the exceptional Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.  Of those, I’ve only read Last Night in Montreal (and highly recommend it), and after The Lola Quartet, she has now become an author whose work I admire and who deserves much more acclaim than she currently receives.


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