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Friday, October 16, 2009

Will Lavender - Obedience ****

Being constantly between jobs and assorted other gigs, I have been buying a lot fewer completely random books that call out to me from the shelf when I'm browsing through my local Barnes & Noble. But every once in a while, one of them just finds its way into my hand, and my feet lead me up to the counter, and suddenly my wallet is fifteen dollars lighter.

Will Lavender's debut novel Obedience was one such book. I was without paycheck, but somehow convinced myself I needed it, despite my already enormous library of books that I have yet to read. I don't know if it was the title, so direct but mysterious. Or maybe the cover, or just inside with lots of great reviews. But I'm guessing that it was probably, per usual, the blurb describing it on the back. To me, reading it again, it sounds a little like Tobias Wolff's Old School, plus a little bit of meta-fictional murder mystery. Not a bad combo in my mind.

The story follows three students at Winchester University's Logic and Reasoning 204 with Professor Williams. These students are presented, on the first day of class, with a murder mystery which they will need to use the lessons of the class to figure out. But something doesn't seem quite right. Things are a bit too real, and way too complex just for a class assignment. Add that to the stresses college students already have, like long distance relationships, getting wasted and having sex with the dean's hot young wife.

Yeah, that was all in there. The laurels of the book fall less on the characters (or really, caricatures) that populate it and more on the story itself. The students--Mary, Brian and Dennis--are a means to an end, a vehicle to deliver a quite layered and rather intriguing story. I can't fault him for it. I'm guilty of the same in my writing, and even greats like Jonathan Lethem (Amnesia Moon) and George Orwell (pretty much everything he's ever written) have fallen prey when they're trying to make a grand point. And although in his point-making, Lavender can't help but beat the reader to death with the fact that he's referencing Paul Auster. Seriously now. I got that before you even assigned Mary City of Glass in one of her other classes. We're cool, you can put the hammer down now, Mr. Lavender.

Like the New York Times Book Review said, "If you solve this one without peeking at the last chapter, it's an automatic A." I'm not sure if that's a compliment or an insult. I like being able to follow along with the clues in my mysteries. But either way, they are right. I didn't see it coming at all. It definitely worked, and it made complete sense just like an ending should, but it wasn't at all what I expected. At first it actually disappointed me, but now looking back, it was exactly what it had to be I suppose. Just the fact that I'm still thinking about it half a year later should tell you enough about the book. Namely that it should be read by you. And probably again by me.

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