The Lola Quartet
By Emily St John Mandel
Read June 2021
This is the second Mandel novel for this reader. Mandel shows off her talent for slowly revealing the stories of multiple characters who are connected in some fashion. In this case, the four characters she gives us were members of the Lola Quartet in high school: Gavin, Jack, Sasha, and Daniel. While they all take different paths after high school, Sasha’s half-sister Anna, who was the (probably simultaneous) girlfriend of Gavin and Daniel while they were in high school, provides a connection that complicates all their lives and provides the suspense/thriller aspect of the story.
Gavin left Florida which was literally too hot for his body to handle. He majored in journalism and lives and works in New York City. When his fiancée leaves him and his newspaper begins slicing off personnel, he invents a quote for a story to make it more interesting. That first lie leads him to more made-up quotes and he is eventually discovered and fired. He returns to Florida to bunk with his sister and work with her in a real estate bankruptcy business, hopefully all temporarily. She shows him a photo of a young girl she took at a foreclosure property which triggers the possibility that Gavin is the father of a child ex-girlfriend Anna really had. (There had been rumors she was pregnant when she left town shortly after Gavin’s graduation.) Gavin’s hunt for the child and Anna provides the suspense/thriller plot and her connection with the quartet provides the means for the author to explore these characters through a series of current day/flashback scenes parsing between the various characters.
Jack also went to college, but studied music to follow his passion. His roommate, Liam Deval, has true talent as well as passion for music. Liam agrees to drive Anna, who shows up at their dorm room one night, to a place she’s trying to reach that isn’t too far from their college town. Liam’s semester, and college career, get derailed when he gets involved with Anna. We learn Jack realizes his passion isn’t enough to fuel a musical career and he manages to get addicted to pain killers and ends up back in his home town, unemployed, living in wreck of a house in a bad section of town.
Daniel had left town with Anna right after graduation, assuming her baby was his. They make it to his aunt’s place where he expects they will be able to stay for a while only to find out that won’t be the case. They end up in a garage of an acquaintance who is now a meth dealer. When the baby is born and it’s clearly not Daniel’s (per skin color), Daniel leaves Anna. Anna stays in the garage for a while with the baby and managers to steal from the meth dealer a satchel containing about $120,000 and she starts a life on the run with her infant daughter. We learn that Daniel is now a police officer in his home town and has two sets of children, from two failed marriages, whom he is supporting financially and with whom he is trying to remain a relevant parent
Sasha is the product of a very dysfunctional family. Anna is her half-sister. She started playing poker for money in high school and when the story picks up, she is working as a waitress in a 24-hour diner and fighting her addiction.
Liam Deval and Anna are critical characters but get little character development. The quartet members are Mandel’s focus. Each had a great high-school experience in the Lola Quartet and for Jack and Sasha this may have been “the best years of their lives”. Mandel may or may not have had planned to make a point here but did so with this reader. Jack goes to college to study music—to follow his passion. Students going to college to follow a sports passion often get a scholarship to do so. Few make it into the profession leagues and they may or may not have had good preparation for post-college but at least they may leave with limited debt whether or not they graduated. Students going to college to follow a passion in music pay to get a music degree. Again, few make it professionally and they may be strangled with heavy student debt, again whether or not they graduated. Jack drops out early when he realizes he’s not going to be successful and doesn’t progress from there. Gavin moved away from music immediately upon leaving high school and was seeking fame and fortune through journalism vs music. He dreams of winning a Pulitzer but his short cuts eliminate that possibility and likely future journalism jobs. So there also is a potential point that at least these characters are driven to achieve fame and fortune and fail.
Mandel demonstrates her ability to draw engaging, rounded characters. They have serious flaws but good points as well. They make serious mistakes and suffer the consequences. Mandel pulls no punches here, but also keeps most of the violence and other nasty scenes “off-camera” —an approach this reader has already indicated much appreciation in her Station Eleven novel. The well-executed character studies and the particular suspense/thriller story—especially with its messy ending—make for a really great read.