The Lola Quartet
by Emily St. John Mandel
Despite the elements that mark The Lola Quartet as both a literary novel and a noir detective story, Emily St. John Mandel’s eagerly anticipated third book achieves only a modicum of success in its chosen genres. As in Last Night in Montreal and The Singer’s Gun, Mandel’s narration concerns itself primarily with questions of identity: who are we inside and out of our system of family and friends? How much do we rely on others to define us? And what happens when we are no longer the person we wanted to be?
In The Lola Quartet, these issues are addressed primarily through Gavin, a disgraced ex-reporter who leaves his crumbling life in New York and moves back to Sebastian, Fla., 10 years after graduating from high school. Upon his return, he is confronted by a mystery from his past that involves Daniel, Jack, and Sasha, former members of Gavin’s high school jazz quartet, and Anna, Gavin’s high school girlfriend. Mandel’s multi-voiced narration (Daniel, Jack, Sasha, and Anna are all given chapters within their POVs) is further complicated by a chronological and geographical non-linearity. The story jumps back and forth between 1999 and 2009 as well as all over the continental US, and after a while you might wonder what the larger structural design of the book could be, or if there even is one. Mandel’s concern with the impact of the past upon the present is often muddled by other, more banal problems: how necessary, for example, is the menacing man with the goldfish tattoo? And how clunky and contrived must the novel’s plot mechanics be in order to get its greater concerns across?
Despite its shortcomings, The Lola Quartet is a page-turner: for better or worse, its prose draws little attention to itself. Mandel also has a gift for pacing that demands you continue reading, regardless of any other frustrations with the novel that arise. One could call it, perhaps, the perfect summer reading: “literary” enough for dinner party discussions, while undemanding enough for the beach.