Review of “The Lola Quartet” by Emily St. John Mandel

“The Lola Quartet” refers to the musical group created by four of the five principal protagonists when they were students at a high school for the performing arts. Gavin, Daniel, Jack, and Sasha were the members of The Lola Quartet. The fifth student, Anna, a year younger than the others, was the sister of one of the members and girlfriend of at least one of the others. The story tells what happened to them in the subsequent ten years by weaving back and forth in time, gradually exposing the meaning and consequences of the puzzling scene in the opening chapter.

Discussion: In spite of being talented students at a magnet school, the five main characters of this book all turned out to be colossal losers. Ten years later, one is a publicly-disgraced mendacious reporter, one a wasted drug addict, one a wasted gambling addict, one a washed-up, twice-divorced cop, and one a drop-out and thief. What are the odds? It seemed a bit unlikely to me. In any event, we never really find out why that happened.

But even if one accepts that set-up, there is more that just didn’t ring true for me. Gavin and Anna were dating in high school and presumably spent all their spare time together, yet in the last two weeks of school, Gavin didn’t see Anna; had no idea where she was; nor any idea why they were incommunicado. Furthermore, when she abruptly left town, he made only a few minor efforts to reach her or find out where she went and why, even after, and in spite of, hearing rumors she was pregnant when she left! (And Gavin isn’t even the one who was drug-addled!)

As for Anna, we are never let in on her motivations, especially about why she felt she had to distance herself from Gavin. In addition, we learn of at least two subsequent unhappy break-ups of hers after Gavin, and though rather central to the plot, we get not a word as to what caused them either.

So Anna remains a cipher, which means to me that (a) her purpose is to show who the other characters are by how they react to her; or (b) she is left enigmatic as part of the noir atmosphere of the book. I could almost believe (a) except we really don’t learn enough about the other characters, save for Gavin (and him only superficially), to support that argument. So I am assuming (b) to be the case, which reminds me why I don’t like noir….

(More broadly, all the information we don’t get may have been a meta referential plot device to point up the annoying way in which none of the characters fully and honestly communicate with one another. Even if that is the case, I don’t think it added to the appeal of the book.)

And then there is the ending, in which two of these five very damaged individuals decide they are somehow qualified to pass judgment on the other three about their moral rectitude (or lack thereof). It just doesn’t seem realistic to me.

One final complaint: There is some very pretty writing in this book, but to me it felt a bit too much like the result of a writing workshop. It definitely has a cinematic, sparse, noir feel, but the regular inclusion of stylistic flourishes at the end of paragraphs and chapters seemed too consciously constructed.

Some examples:

“He stared unseeing out the window into white.”

“Gavin walked back out into the heat with his fedora in his hands.”

“He drifted alone in his lawn chair on the grass.”

Evaluation: This book has gotten very good reviews, but I wasn’t as enamored with it as most reviewers. I thought there were too many holes in the plot, and too much that didn’t make sense to me. I also felt a bit too aware of a writer plying her craft, rather than being immersed in the story in a way that fully transported me.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Unbridled Books, 2012

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21 Responses

  1. So I’m guessing this one didn’t wasn’t one of your favorites? :)

    You bring up so good points in your evaluation.

  2. NO NO NO!!! I’m not sure I wanted to hear this. Because I absolutely ADORE Emily, and The Singer’s Gun really blew me away. I know Heather O. really liked this one, but like Beth said, you do bring up good points. I’m still absolutely going to read this.

  3. I read this one about a year ago and thought it was okay, but some of the characters bugged me.

    Here’s to higher praise for you next read!!

  4. I enjoyed this one a lot more than you did, but I do think you made some very valid points. I guess I just allowed myself to suspend reality… a lot! Because of your opinions, I think this would make a great discussion book!

  5. I hate a ‘hole’y plot.
    another to skip.

  6. I read the author’s first book, and I didn’t really like it. I thought it was good but not great. I haven’t felt like picking up her others.

  7. Well, my nephew went to a state school for math and science and you would be surprised at the number of his high school friends who have not suceeded, so I would buy that part of the story. Sorry this didn’t work for you.

  8. I am sorry to hear that you didn’t like this one. I have only read one of the author’s books, her first, and it was remarkable. This is the one that I have been least interested in, though you are right in saying that it’s gotten a lot of positive reviews. I will have to see if I can grab it up and see what I think of it. It sounds a little tedious, but I think I will check it out. Very reflective review today, Jill. I enjoy your reviews, even when you don’t love a book!

  9. I have heard great things about her writing, and I like the premise of the music school, but usually prefer stories to center on the school experience rather than adulthood (especially if the adulthood is messed up).

  10. Thanks for knocking another one off of my list!

  11. I’ll say your not enamored of it! And this doesn’t seem to say much for magnet schools!

  12. I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t care for this one!

    And I have to say I still don’t really understand what noir is, LoL.

  13. The premise sounds alright if the the nature of the school and the characters’ backgrounds caused them issues (expectations and the like) but what you’ve said about Gavin and Anna sounds a bit like the author forgot that thread of the book. The writing is a little too much. A bit forced, perhaps?

  14. I had high hopes for this one but I’m not sure if it is something I would like.

  15. I think I’ll skip this one. I can suspend reality for thrillers and middle-grade adventure books, but literary fiction?

  16. When I read where you felt parts of this book didn’t make sense then I know for sure that I will struggle. I too had marked this book to read because so many of my friends loved it. Now, I’m rethinking that decision and will at least not attempt this one in 2013.

  17. I have read good things about this one, but you aren’t the only one who was left wanting. I can’t seem to get into the synopsis, so I think I am going to skip this one.

  18. Nothing about this looks appealing. Thank you for saving me from another book to read!

  19. Bleh. Even if there was some reason for them all to grow up into miserable wretched people with wretched sad lives, I wouldn’t feel like reading this book. It depresses me to read about people who grow up and have sad wretched sordid lives.

  20. Oh Jill, how you make me cry. I’m sorry you didn’t love this one but I still stand by my love for it. ;)

  21. I’ll be hopefully reading this pretty soon – I’ve loved Mandel’s past two works, so I’m hoping this one will be the same. The inexplicable parts of the book are kind of worrying me but well, we’ll see how it goes.

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