‘The Lola Quartet’ falls flat

The best of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Lola Quartet is concentrated in the novel’s first scene. Young teen mom Anna Montgomery is going about her daily ritual. She wakes early, bundles the bambino, and stops at an all-night donut shop. From there she makes her way to a park where she sits on a swing and frets the bundle of more than $100,000 she’s got stashed in the stroller. A man appears in the distance.

Dun-dun-duh.

Unfortunately, that first burst of intrigue is wasted when the cast of un-likeable characters are put through a series of coincidences that are unbelievable and lacking in impact. Put it this way: I’m reading a comic book right now that includes a talking guitar and I’m way more willing to shelf my disbelief for that little guy.

Fast forward to a decade after Anna’s moment in the park. We meet uber-pussy Gavin Sasaki, a young journalist working for the second-best newspaper in New York City. This isn’t the world of journalism that he imagined as a student at Columbia University. He’s into trench coats and fedoras and world-changing exposes. Instead he’s playing survival of the fittest in an ever-dwindling staff, hanging on to his job simply because he is one of the least expensive writers on the payroll. His editor sends him to his hometown in Florida to write a story about the way swamp animals are infiltrating residential areas.

Gavin’s in a bad place. His girlfriend, Karen, has recently miscarried and left him, his shower is leaking, and he fears his return to Florida is going to trigger the heat strokes that hospitalized him as a kid.

When the unloveable loser gets to Sebastian, Fla., his sister Eileen passes along some alarming intel: The real estate agent was recently working on a foreclosure property and saw a young girl that looked exactly like her. When Eileen asked the girl her name, she replied “Chloe Montgomery.” Montgomery. As in, maybe related to Anna Montgomery, Gavin’s high school girlfriend who skipped town 10 years ago following a swirl of rumors that she was preggers. Eileen snapped a photo of the girl and shows it to Gavin. Alas, she was seen taken the photo and the homeowner ran her off the property, so Eileen doesn’t have any more information.

The news is distracting to Gavin, who continues reporting on swamp creatures and back in NYC he botches the name of a woman he interviews who had given him a sweet kicker quote he wanted to use to end his story. When he is unable to find the woman’s name, he invents one. This is the gateway drug to a world of invented sources and manufactured quotes that eventually get him fired from his job and land him back in Sebastian — this time to live with his sister, assist her in her work, and track down the mysterious Anna Montgomery.

The story goes from flashback to present day and shows the life paths of the members of Gavin’s high school music mates from The Lola Quartet. Jack, who had the most promise, is strung out on pain pills. Daniel has become a surly policeman in their hometown. Sasha, Anna’s half sister, is on the mend from a gambling addiction and working as a waitress at a diner. There is a bunch of stuff beneath the surface that Gavin never knew about his old girlfriend, or maybe refused to acknowledge. For instance, the young quartet groupie was banging David and when she found out she was pregnant, she hoped she was running off to Utah with the right sexual partner. It’s obvious when Chloe slides out that she has picked the wrong dude.

Mandel has aged these characters in a creaky and broken way and has given them life losses and laments befitting characters thirty years removed from high school, rather than just ten. And any character that wasn’t in the quartet is somehow linked to the quartet, including a semi-famous musician from New York City — who Gavin saw play Monday night gigs at a local bar, but is also Jack’s former roommate and, oh, it’s his mother who was watching Chloe Montgomery when Eileen spotted the child. A game warden who was a source in Gavin’s story about the animals is also Sasha’s friend from her support group. Mandel also seemed to make spur of the moment decisions on the back stories of her characters, adding things like BTW: Gavin and Eileen’s parents were awful and absent and Anna Montgomery was a real hell raiser. Why she liked Gavin, who is such a wienie, shrug.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews of this book that call it “lovely” and “engaging” and I can’t help but think I’m reading something different than the rest of the world. Did I download a rough draft? Because The Lola Quartet is really poorly conceived and hokey. It has the feel of a NaNoWriMo book that never should have landed in the real world.

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