Ever play that game, where will I be in 10 years? The drama in Emily St. John Mandel’s noir thriller hinges on what becomes of four teens who form a jazz quartet in high school, when their lives collide a decade later.
Gavin (trumpet) is a sensitive fabulist who wears fedoras, certain he was born in the wrong era. Jack (piano/saxophone) has a touch of synesthesia and sees light when he plays, music being “the brightest thing in the room.” Daniel (bass), the skinny kid with an afro, wears T-shirts for bands no one has ever heard of. Sasha (drums) is feisty and bookish.
The suspense in The Lola Quartet revolves around Gavin, as his life splinters into shards and he tries to track down his high-school girlfriend, Anna, whom he believes was pregnant when she vanished during the quartet’s last gig. Mandel sets up a rhythm between 1999 and deepest, darkest 2009, during the recent economic crash.
Gavin lands his first job at The New York Star. Daydreaming of changing the world, he invents sources and quotes for his stories, “because real people are so goddamn disappointing.”
Fired and disgraced in a Jayson Blair-like scandal, Gavin returns home to South Florida to work for his sister, a real-estate broker of foreclosed homes. After glimpsing a photo of a girl he assumes is his lost daughter, he becomes obsessed with finding Anna and their child, contacting their old crowd for help.
Mandel can be a spare, graceful writer. She brings music alive. Gavin and his sister, Eilo, are finely wrought, layered characters. The South Florida landscape is evoked in all of its hot-house horror, as suburban sprawl encroaches on natural swampland and nervous residents encounter unsuspecting reptiles. Small, glittering lizards grow into seven-foot-long, 200-pound monsters “with eerily intelligent eyes and extravagantly pebbled skin, perfectly capable of eating a small dog.” (Not to mention a small child.)
The narrative has a hurtling pace, with swift shifts in time, place and perspective. On page one, we meet 17-year-old Anna, transient, hiding out in Virginia. She is drinking her morning coffee in a park, as her daughter Chloe sleeps in the stroller. Mandel peppers this quotidian scene with a little static shock: Duct-taped to the underside of the stroller is more than $100,000 in cash. A few pages and a decade later, Gavin glimpses a photograph of a little girl who resembles him and has Anna’s last name. She’s 10. With this whomping coincidence – within the first 10 pages – we hear the clanking machinery of plot. Mandel strains too hard, too fast.
This adrenaline-fuelled tale is hard to put down, though details are not subtle or well thought out. If Anna’s raison d’être is to protect her baby, is taping stolen money under the stroller a good idea? Mind you, she’s ripped off a homicidal drug dealer. Granted, Anna is not a rocket scientist, but need she be that dim?
Anna is a problem. Central to the story, her character is not deeply imagined. After we meet her briefly on page one, she does not reappear until nearly halfway through the novel. A runaway from a troubled home with a fat file at Family Services, she is a good bad girl, unformed, a type.
The novel dramatizes the painful gap between a teenager’s idealized future and a young adult’s reality. Jack, the one they all thought would make it, is good, just not good enough. He’s sunk into despair and Vicodin addiction, living in a tent. Daniel is barely recognizable as a stoop-shouldered cop, bald and overweight, with two failed marriages behind him. Sasha, who studied English literature, now works the graveyard shift in a roadside diner. Rode hard and put away wet, she spends her free time at Gamblers Anonymous.
Though The Lola Quartet is uneven, it has unsuspected depth. How do you help a friend who’s drowning without going under? How do you reconcile the young dream of self with the later limits of life? These are timely and timeless themes that burrow under the skin.
Ami Sands Brodoff hopes to still be writing novels in 10 years. She’s at work on a new one, Faraway Nearby; her latest is The White Space Between, winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction.