A first-time novelist explores identity, deception, and obsession.
“In the estival heat, he set his back against the cold stone of a tomb. He plucked a honeysuckle stalk sprouting from what had once been men; he sipped its bit of juice. In time, lying in the dirt, he, too, might nourish future pilgrims. If he had one petition for himself, it was this: that he be made useful.” How one reacts to this passage is almost certainly an indicator of how one will react to this novel as a whole. Readers who delight in encountering seldom-used words and precise depictions of physical and mental landscapes are likely to love Kwon’s writerly style. Her book is shot through with carefully limned descriptions and unexpected language—“orphic,” “sacerdotal,” “shibboleths,” “harlequin.” Readers who are interested in plot and character, however, may well be less satisfied despite the fact that the basic elements of a gripping story are present. Will Kendall is a poor kid and a lapsed evangelical. When he arrives at Edwards University, he invents a preppy persona to hide the fact that he’s waiting tables to support himself and his mother. Phoebe Lin was a child prodigy, the product of her own gifts and her Korean immigrant mother’s aspirations for her. Phoebe’s decision to quit the piano and her mother’s death leave her unmoored when she arrives at Edwards. And then there’s John Leal, a charismatic Edwards dropout who has become a cult leader. It’s clear from the beginning that these three characters are moving toward cataclysm, but….The narrative is so slow and so superficial that the climax is anticlimactic. The biggest problem is that Will is both the dominant voice and the least interesting character, which diminishes the reader’s ability to understand Phoebe and John. This does make some thematic sense, in that Kwon is clearly interested in performative selfhood and the inability of truly understanding another person, but….This leaves the reader with an outsider’s perspective.
Aesthetically pleasing but narratively underwhelming.