As an English teacher, Elisabeth Elo stresses to her students to get the details right, to pay attention to every word, every sentence. Practicing what she teaches, she shelved what would become North of Boston for almost five years due to the daunting amount of research she felt it would require to truly animate the story. But her protagonist Pirio Kasparov’s voice was unrelenting during the hiatus, so much so that Elo was compelled to sit down, do the work and complete her novel.
North of Boston grapples with and melds seemingly disparate subject matter (commercial fishing, perfume, alcoholism, issues of class, environmental consciousness, self-determination) in an original and entertaining way with succinct syntax and hard, clipped lines of prose that complement the suspenseful momentum of the novel.
Pirio Kasparov is the heir to a perfume empire. She will inherit it from her cold and stoic father and long-deceased supermodel mother who originally founded the company. On an outing with her friend Ned Rizzo on his lobstering boat, the vessel is suddenly smashed in two: Ned dies and Pirio is adrift on a board in the freezing Atlantic. She is eventually pulled out of the icy waters virtually unscathed, making her a person of intense interest to the U.S. Navy. Since Ned’s death, Pirio becomes even closer and more protective of his embattled young son, Noah. Thomasina, who is Noah’s alcoholic and wealthy mother, Pirio’s best friend and Ned’s ex-girlfriend, gives Pirio reasons to believe that Ned’s death was no accident and thus begins Pirio’s reluctant sleuthing.
As the mystery and suspense mounts, a layer is added when Elo introduces an unsuspected twist of bloody environmental conflict into the conspiracy thriller cocktail. “When you write thrillers or suspense novels they have to do at their heart with some kind of confrontation with evil,” Elo says. Elo chooses to explore the enemy within in North of Boston. She wanted to know if we can “change ourselves, can we change our behavior, can we come together to make the world livable for the next 10 billion people who are going to be here?”
Elo currently teaches night school at Boston College to predominantly non-traditional students. She earned her graduate degree from Brandeis and has also taught writing at Harvard and Tufts. All these strata of the class spectrum manifest themselves as Pirio shifts from working-class bars to tony multi-course meals at her father’s home. “I think class is crucial to understanding modern American life,” Elo says. “Everybody…is in some kind of flux. That is the way I see American society working.”
Elo also emphasizes to her students that writing is a discipline, tantamount to playing a musical instrument. She talks to them about the social power of writing and reminds them that “how the writing effects the reader is the purpose of writing, so if you want to know if you are successful, you look at the reader.”
Elo did not plan on writing another Pirio book, but the foundation is laid. In the next installment, Pirio travels to Yakutsk, Siberia, where she is searching for a displaced family member who was taken there by the Soviets in 1942 to work in a labor camp. Judging from North of Boston, Pirio’s next puzzle promises to be nothing short of unpredictable and exciting.
Evan Rodriguez is a writer living in Georgetown, Texas.