Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Student of Living Things, by Susan Richards Shreve


In the aftermath of a political murder, a young woman opts for vengeance in this thriller-paced family drama.

In the Washington, D.C., of a not-too-distant future, in the midst of mysterious bombings and red alerts and a Justice Department tightening the screws, law student Steven Frayn is shot on the steps of his university’s library. The FBI soon concludes that this was not just another random terrorist attack (cousin Bernard lost a leg to a bomb at a convenience store) but an assassination—someone wanted Steven dead. The murder unravels a close-knit family. Steven’s father retreats to the small hangar in the yard of their Bethesda home, where he is rebuilding an old plane—never mind that he doesn’t know how to fly. Mother Julia rants and makes suspect lists for the FBI. Uncle Milo decides what the family really needs is music, and so buys a piano. But it is the novel’s narrator, Steven’s sister Claire, who becomes embroiled in an unlikely plot to bring Steven’s killer to justice. A biology student (with a musty bedroom filled with dead and living things), Claire returns to school after the murder and (not so accidentally) meets Victor Duarte, a young radical who claims to have known Steven, and may have answers as to who killed him. The magnetic Victor convinces Claire that Benjamin Reed, a music student in Michigan and son of Charles Reed, head of the Justice Department, is Steven’s killer. Victor creates an elaborate plan to trap Benjamin, and Claire, in her shock and sorrow, can’t see the absurdity of the scheme. As Benjamin and Claire begin to exchange love letters of sorts—music that they compose—Claire begins to question what she knows about Victor, Steven and herself. Shreve’s storytelling, smart and economic, is in danger here of being too spare—her grand collection of characters is beautifully outlined, but not fully realized, and for a novel trading in emotional upheaval, that is no small flaw.

Evocative and thoughtful, but too thin to prove a success.
For myself, I found Susan Richards Shreve's spare, economical writing effective in conveying the sense of loss that her primary character, Claire felt. Shreve's matter-of-fact presentation of an alternate post 9/11 reality was more foreboding than it would have been had she tried to dramatize the situation. All in all, a terrific read -- highly recommended

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