CBR15 BINGO – Relation”Ship”, for the relationships between four high school friends and their families, both known and unknown
I suspect I’m like most readers in that I first encountered Emily St. John Mandel when I read her brilliant and heart-aching Station Eleven. Since then, I’ve eagerly awaited her new novels and, having caught up on those, I finally turned to her earlier works.
The Lola Quartet, published two years before Station Eleven, is the story of a group of high school friends in Florida who came together as part of a jazz club, playing informal concerts for the other students. The story begins ten years after their final concert, which happened just before the quartet graduated. It was also the last time Gavin Sasaki saw Anna, his high school girlfriend, before she left town without a word. The year is 2009, and Gavin is a reporter for a New York newspaper when his editor sends him to his home town in Florida to cover a story. While visiting with his sister Eilo, a real estate agent currently cashing in on the foreclosure explosion, she shows him a photograph of a little girl she saw in a home that was currently being foreclosed on. The girl looks identical to Eilo as a child, and Gavin becomes obsessed with the idea of finding Anna and this child, very likely Gavin’s daughter. As he loses focus on his job, he begins fudging information in his stories, until a blatantly fabricated witness quotation results in him being fired and publicly humiliated.
As part of his search for Anna, Gavin reconnects with the other members of the quartet: Daniel, the once-wiry bass player, is now a police detective with a thyroid problem; Sasha, drummer and half-sister to Anna, is a waitress who, we later learn, has a gambling problem; Jack, the genius of the group, who could play both saxophone and piano and who they believed was destined for greatness, was ruined by an opioid addiction. They all have one thing in common, though: None of them want to talk to Gavin about Anna. Daniel, once considered a friend, is overtly hostile toward Gavin and repeatedly warns him to go back to New York and stop asking questions, suggesting that Gavin had “had his chance” to do the right thing back in high school.
As typical of Mandel’s work, this novel hits many notes. It has a sense of noir about it in the manner of Anna’s disappearance and Gavin’s obsession with tracking her down and playing private detective. The name of the jazz group comes from “a German film they’d all liked with Lola in the title,” a reference to the wonderful 1998 film Run Lola Run (which, if you’ve seen it, provides a hint about Anna’s troubles). It touches on drug addiction, compulsive gambling, invasive species, jazz, and the 2008 housing market crash. We even get an allusion to Jonathan Alkaitis, the billionaire Ponzi schemer at the center of The Glass Hotel.
The themes of the novel surround regret, failed potential, friendship, and loyalty. Gavin insists throughout the story that he never knew Anna was pregnant because she never told him. Yet, many people knew, and there were rumors, which he found easy to ignore. He had plausible deniability, but did he really not know? Over the course of the novel, he must come to terms with his motives. Daniel finally spells it out for him, “If someone’s drowning in front of you and they say they don’t want to be saved, do you take them at their word or do you pull them out of the water?”
This novel is beautifully written, as all Mandel’s novels are, and I can see the beginnings of her genius in it. I wouldn’t say I was let down, but it’s very much an “ordinary people” type novel, and I prefer when Mandel writes about extraordinary people, or at least ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. This is my least favorite novel by Emily St. John Mandel that I’ve read so far, but that still puts her miles above so many other authors.