Stiff Upper Lip Meets Steamy Underbelly



Alys, Always by Harriet Lane (2012)

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel (2012)

by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library

Often, serendipitously, themes resonate, collide and combine in a pair of novels that I happen to read back to back.  Two such novels are Alys, Always by British first- time author Harriet Lane andThe Lola Quartet, the third novel, by Canadian- born author Emily St. John Mandel.   On the surface they appear to have little in common, Alys Always is set in Britain, while The Lola Quartet is set primarily in Florida.  The action in both revolves around a death but in Alys Always it is by car accident, in The Lola Quartet, it is murder.  A fatal car accident opens chapter one of Alys Always while the  murder comes very late in the story in The Lola Quartet.   The protagonist, our storytelling voice, in Alys, Always is a young unassuming woman, Frances Thorpe, while in The Lola Quartet it is Gavin Sasaki, a confident Asian American.

However, both Frances and Gavin are journalists for large newspapers.  Frances is a junior book editor for a large London newspaper and Gavin is an investigative reporter for a large New York City paper.  Both fear losing their jobs to downsizing as the newspapers in both countries are suffering from low circulation.   Frances survives and thrives in her work, through calculated methods, while Gavin succumbs to the tantalizing, and to him, necessary, need to lie about his sources.  He is caught; he is fired.

Harriet Lane’s style in Alys Always has been compared to the gothic and atmospheric styles Daphne Du Maurier and Ruth Rendell.   Kirkus Reviews says, ‘Frances is audaciously ambitious, leaving the reader both scandalized and dazzled.  Controlled and precise, Lane’s writing bewitches with its undertones of implied meanings and carefully hidden secrets.”

As the story opens, Frances, while driving home on a dark, cold night, notices something in the woods.  She stops and finds a car crashed against a tree with a woman inside.  The woman, named Alys, is alive; Frances comforts her until the ambulance arrives.  Alas they are too late but not before Alys Kyte whispers her last words into France’s ears.   The action in Alys, Always unfolds slowly, each word is vital.  When Alys Kyte’s family requests to meet Frances to hear Alys’s  last words, she nervously agrees.  At the meeting she does the oddest thing – she lies about what the Alys’s last words were.  Reader alert!  Why would she do that?

Frances crafts a plan.  The reader knows there is a plan but not the details.  She begins by insinuating herself into the family, befriending Alys’s grieving, college-age daughter, Polly.  She becomes the shoulder to cry on, a person at the other end of the phone and the always available coffee buddy.  Why is Frances doing this?  What is her ultimate goal?  Hang onto your hats, this girl has high hopes for herself both personally and professionally.  And how she achieves them is inspiring, although I wouldn’t try it at home!  Ratchet up the creepiness factor but don’t stop reading!

Gavin on the other hand has much less control over his life and rather than directing events, he responds to them in irrational, erratic and dangerous ways.  Where Frances is all logic, Gavin is all heart.

Gavin’s downslide begins after he returns home to New York City from a work-related trip to his hometown, Sebastian, Florida.  While there his sister, Eilo, shows him a photo of a 10 year-old girl who looks just like him.  Yes, he had a relationship in high school with long-time sweetheart, Anna, but a child?  After he is fired, Gavin turns to drink, self-loathing and music.  Shortly he is evicted and returns to Sebastian, penniless, to live and work with his sister.  However, his underlying motive is to find his daughter, Chloe, who along with Anna has disappeared.  Gavin also discovers that Anna purportedly stole $121,000 from a drug dealer while pregnant and has been on the run with Chloe ever since.

Looking for information, Gavin reconnects with the members of his high school jazz quartet, The Lola Quartet.  Their performance on the eve of high school graduation was the last time he ever saw Anna.  Daniel is twice divorced and a local detective; Sasha (Anna’s sister) is recovering from a gambling addiction and works as a waitress and Jack has fallen down the hole of true drug addiction.  Each character knows something about the pregnancy and Anna’s crime, and Mandel cleverly drops hints on every page.

This is the kind of story where you feel compelled to talk to the character and say, ‘No, Gavin, don’t do it’, but, of course, he does.  Is Gavin the good guy or the bad guy in the story?  What about Daniel, Sasha and John?    Add to this noir-like plot, the steamy, potent air of Sebastian, Florida, replete with seedy strip malls and dark alleys.  Library Journal says, “Evocative, intriguing, and complex, this novel is as smooth as the underbelly of a deadly, furtive reptile.”

Plots, sub-plots and complications converge in a highly satisfying and unpredictable way.  This is great story-telling and a terrific crime novel, highly nuanced and layered.  When the novel ends, be prepared to immediately turn back to page one and read it again to discover all the puzzle pieces you missed the first time.

Frances vs. Gavin, London vs. Florida, cunning stiff upper lip vs. American bravado.  You can’t go wrong with either.

Published in the Sunday Herald, Portsmouth, NH – Sept. 9, 2012.


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