A troubled coed demolishes a professor’s carefully arranged life in this engrossing tale of mad love.
At the age of 53, Travis Harrison’s humdrum routine as a historian at the University of Texas at Austin takes a turn for the better. His novel, a satirical what-if about a modern-day presidential campaign by Thomas Jefferson, is climbing the bestseller lists. He’s engaged to a marketing professor who nags him about his clothes and spreadsheets his daily writing quota, but under her thumb he’s more productive than ever. Enter 19-year-old, redheaded waif-fatale Layla, who notices Travis giving money to a homeless man and latches onto him as a savior from her chaotic self. Layla entices Travis with a mixture of sexual come-on and little-girl-lost vulnerability; against everyone’s better judgment, he embroils himself in her sadomasochistic relationship with a thuggish boyfriend and, after her suicide attempt, takes her into his home. That’s a spectacularly ill-advised move: Layla parades around the house in the nude, Katherine seethes with jealousy, Travis tries to stabilize the one and placate the other while keeping a lid on his own roiled emotions. He realizes that his attempts to help Layla are driven by her resemblance to his daughter, Randi, who died in a horrific car crash, and wonders if that makes their fraught relationship more innocent or more perverted. The scenario of the staid academic knocked silly by a student temptress is a hoary one, but Shepherd manages to keep it fresh and nuanced. Although he has a tendency to supply them with hackneyed psychoanalytic backstories, he draws vivid, complex characters–Layla mesmerizes with her hair-trigger mood swings and canny manipulativeness; Katherine is both a controlling monster and a stalwart friend in need; Travis walks a tightrope of propriety while longing to lose his balance and topple over into feeling and desire.
A sterling debut from a talented writer.