Critics have been prophesying great things for B.C.-born, Brooklyn-based Emily St. John Mandel since she first came on the scene three years ago. Written in the same thriller-ish vein as her previous two novels, The Lola Quartet isn’t the breakthrough everyone’s been hoping for, but it’s a diverting read with an undeniable spark. It’s also Mandel’s strongest outing to date.
As with her debut, Last Night in Montreal, Mandel’s plot revolves around a runaway female character pursued by a former lover. The novel begins in Sebastian, Florida, where Anna Montgomery, a muddled teen from a broken home, finds herself pregnant. Having recently dated two members of the Lola Quartet, a jazz ensemble from her high school, Anna takes a gamble and tells Daniel, the group’s bass player, that the child is his. Daniel wants to do the right thing, so he whisks Anna off to Utah so she can live with his friend Paul, who unfortunately turns out to be a meth dealer.
In a rather obvious bit of strategic casting, the baby’s birth immediately trumpets the fact that Anna has gambled and lost: Daniel is African-American, but the baby is part Asian like the man who is now obviously her father, Gavin Sasaki, now at university in New York. Panicked, Anna flees with her daughter, but not before stealing a large enough sum of money from Paul to ensure he will pursue her relentlessly to get it back.
A decade later, Anna is still on the lam. Gavin is a reporter for a New York daily with improbably romantic notions about his job (including a penchant for fedoras, trenchcoats and his 40-year-old camera). Gavin’s ideals prove to be more aesthetic than ethical when, fearful for his future in an ever-atrophying newsroom, he takes to embellishing his articles with quotes from non-existent sources.
After being fired in the most publically humiliating way possible, Gavin returns to Florida to live with his sister, Eilo, who works in foreclosures, the state’s new boom industry. Eilo tells Gavin that she recently encountered a child with an uncanny resemblance to him with Anna’s last name. Gavin, who heard rumours Anna was pregnant before she vanished and suspected the child might be his, decides to harness his derelict reporting skills to find Anna and learn the truth.
Anna disappeared the night the Lola Quartet played its final gig, so Gavin’s first thought is to find the group’s other members. The task doesn’t prove difficult—all three are living in Sebastian in various states of despondency after squandering their once-promising futures. Daniel is a crime detective ground down by two unsuccessful marriages and his guilt about getting Anna mixed up with Paul; Jack, the saxophonist, is hopelessly addicted to pills, while Sasha, Anna’s half-sister and the quartet’s drummer, is a semi-recovered gambling addict who waitresses the graveyard shift at a local diner. Lurking on the periphery, like the oversized snakes that slither amok in the town’s swamps and canals is Paul, his thirst for vengeance apparently not slaked by the intervening decade.
These characters may be victims of bad upbringings and economic circumstance, but they have the jaded, stagnant mien it normally takes at least a couple more decades to cultivate. And Gavin’s motives go from being admirable to opaque; it’s hard to credit why, after so many years, he suddenly has such a sense of urgency about finding out whether he’s fathered a child. A somewhat limp ending confirms that selfishness is everyone’s default motive here. It’s hard not to feel that Mandel wastes her fluid, elegant writing and taut pacing on this hypocritical, inconsequential crew.