An Ivy League senior’s unsolved murder may or may not involve, but certainly affects, three students and the charismatic professor authorities suspect but never charge with the crime.
Kirman's debut novel closely parallels the 1998 Suzanne Jovin murder case, in which a Yale professor fell under suspicion but was never charged. The professor here is Rufus Storrow, a Virginia aristocrat and graduate of West Point and Oxford. In his 40s, he's teaching law and history at Harvard after a mysterious career in shadowy government agencies abroad. The murder victim is Julie Patel, one of his students, who vociferously opposed Storrow’s less-than-politically-correct views on colonialism and the Third World. Three of Julie's classmates, Georgia Calvin, Charlie Flournoy, and Alice Kovac, all have different relationships with Storrow. Their recollections and perceptions of events leading up to Julie's murder and its aftermath form the novel’s core. Georgia was Storrow’s secret lover—who seduced whom remains unclear—but dumped him before the murder. The beautiful, privileged, seemingly worldly daughter of a famous photographer, she's careless in her affections though not as tough as she thinks. Charlie is pathetically smitten with Georgia, allowing her to tease him sexually and use him as a doormat. He's rejected his working-class family and re-created himself as a bow tie–wearing, politically conservative elitist; he idolizes Storrow, his mentor, for the very reasons students like Julie hate him. Georgia’s friend Alice, the daughter of Serbian immigrants, is an angry outsider and an emotional loose cannon. There's a definite homoerotic undercurrent to the girls’ friendship. Georgia is attracted to Alice’s intensity; though Alice wants to “share in that attention which Georgia inspired, to harness that power,” she also blames Georgia for her eventual emotional breakdown. While Storrow and the three students all have guilty secrets to hide, the murder affects each differently in the decade that follows.
This novel reads dangerously like Donna Tartt lite.