‘How far would you go for someone you love?” Liam Deval asks Gavin Sasaki toward the end of this intricately plotted novel. But what he means is: How vile a crime would you be willing to commit?
This constitutes one of the central questions of “The Lola Quartet,’’ Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel that blends elements of mystery with character studies of a group of young adults in Florida prematurely filled with dark disappointment about their lives.
The overlapping complications of this story are manifold. While at music school in South Carolina, Deval meets, falls in love, and eventually hits the road with Anna Montgomery and her child, who are on the run from a violent drug dealer who’s trying to hunt her down for stealing $121,000 from him.
Gavin used to love Anna: She was his high school girlfriend, but she disappeared the summer after his senior year. There were rumors she was pregnant. There were rumors she had run off with Daniel, a member of Gavin’s jazz band.
Somehow Gavin managed not to hear those rumors. It was a busy time for him: In addition to graduating from high school, he was preparing for Columbia University in the fall, and his band, the Lola Quartet — Gavin on trumpet, Daniel on bass, Jack on saxophone, and Anna’s sister Sasha on drums — was giving its farewell concert before disbanding forever.
Ten years later, Gavin’s sister, Eilo, happens to see a little girl in their hometown about 10 years old, whose resemblance to herself and Gavin is uncanny. Like Anna, her last name is Montgomery. Eilo decides to snap a photograph to show Gavin.
That innocuous decision unleashes torrents of unintended consequences — including murder.
The instant he sees the photograph, Gavin knows the child is his daughter. In fact, he realizes, he probably knew Anna was pregnant the summer she disappeared, but chose to be oblivious.
Rattled, he becomes sloppy at work and soon manages to get himself fired from his dream job of reporting for a New York newspaper. Back home in unpleasantly hot, humid Sebastian, Fla., he resolves to find Anna and the child. His investigation starts with the Lola Quartet.
The three other band members have also, over time, drifted back to Sebastian, as if it were a magnetic field they couldn’t quite escape. Daniel became a cop. Sasha is a waitress. Jack, who went to music school with Deval, is a pill addict. Depressingly few of their high school dreams and ambitions have been realized.
Mandel’s novels are rife with characters who make stupid mistakes. They are good people, mostly, who fail to see what they don’t want to see, and don’t remember what would be inconvenient to remember. They screw up, in other words, and their screw-ups sometimes cause harm to others.
They are also constantly in conflict with themselves, just like real people. Anna, in hiding, making omelettes for Deval and a guest he’s brought to their home, has to restrain her impulse to confess how different she is from the calm, domesticated woman she appears to be: “Listen, I ran away three times before the tenth grade. . . . I stole a hundred and twenty-one thousand dollars from a drug dealer in Utah. I am not someone who has always stood in front of stoves cooking eggs for her boyfriend.”
Just as every person is flawed in his or her own way, so is every novel. The mistakes here include hyperactive plotting, which leaves several minor plot lines unresolved; and at times forcing the characters to be subservient to the exigencies of plot. (It’s obvious, for example, that Daniel is African-American for only one, plot-driven reason: Mandel needs to make it clear the minute Anna’s baby is born that it is not his.)
Still, the book, like its brilliant predecessor, “The Singer’s Gun,” virtually trumpets its author’s talents: her charismatic verbal grace and acuity, the rich atmosphere she creates, and the thoughtful way she tries to tease meaning out of the collateral damage her characters, in screwing up, have wrought.
Next to those pleasures, a few loose threads are unimportant.
Nan Goldberg, a freelance writer and book critic, can be reached at nan@thebookmaven