Despite the title, Jonathan Evison’s first novel is not actually all about Lulu. When she and the earnest narrator, Will, are ten years old, her grief-counselor mother marries his father, a recently widowed body builder. Until Lulu sweeps in, Will’s a shy, grief-stricken vegetarian amidst the meat-eating men in his family, whose frequent refrain is a sincere, “No pain, no gain.” Will begins transcribing everything about his bewitching stepsister into “The Book of Lulu,” — multiple volumes that document his obsessive love for the girl growing up across the hall. To Will, “Lulu was an entire population. You could string adjectives together like daisy chains and not describe Lulu. Verbs came closer: soaring, crashing, yearning, laughing...” What might otherwise have been straightforward mutual adoration between the two is undone by their pseudo-siblinghood and the angst of adolescence. Lulu’s real, but out of reach, and becomes Will’s enigma, a living ghost.
Sustaining 300-plus pages on a star-crossed crush might get old, but in Evison’s capable hands the thread never drops and rarely grows tiresome. He weaves in rich and fully realized subplots and supporting characters, including men Lulu has rejected, and a former Soviet wrestler who partners with golden-voiced Will in hot dog entrepreneurship. Through everything that happens to Will, the consistency of his character is deeply identifiable — a difficult task considering he turns from boy to man in the ten tortured years the book spans.
Evison doesn’t always give himself enough credit, explaining some things that his well-crafted writing has already made clear. Also, in lingering too long in the angst of separation when Lulu leaves for college and in the buildup to Will’s long-awaited debut as a radio personality, the writing’s sometimes too self-conscious. These moments are easily forgiven, though, in the face of so many unexpected details and the frankness of Will’s heart. Evison balances Will’s weighty disappointment, his family’s evolutions, some surprising discoveries and the West Coast as the 80s got grungy, with a healthy mix of humor and heartache.