While it at first focuses on Gavin Sasaki, the true heart of this gut-wrenching novel is a high school jazz band called the Lola Quartet. Gavin—an aspiring trumpet player—unknowingly gets his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant, then leaves for college. The panicked Anna makes a series of bad choices that wind up ruining the lives of not only Gavin, but also his friend Daniel, the quartet’s bass player; Jack, the saxophonist; and Shasha, the drummer who is Anna’s half-sister.
Told in an elastic time line that plays back and forth between the now and ten years earlier, The Lola Quartet also travels from Florida to Manhattan to Salt Lake City. The ripples of Anna’s damage widen further as her lies infect Paul, a crystal meth dealer who takes in the pregnant teen, and Liam, the gifted jazz guitarist who loves her.
After last year’s superb, twisty The Singer’s Gun, Mandel wouldn’t be faulted if she eased up and wrote something more straightforward, but she didn’t. Subtlety in the midst of chaos is her forte, and as the action slowly ramps up to murder, her tone is controlled, her artistic vision flawless. In describing Gavin’s late-blooming sense of honor, for instance, she shows him meditating on something as unlikely as returning WWI vets: “These were men who’d been through trench warfare and emerged hard and half-broken into the glitter and commotion of the between-wars world; men out of time, out of place, hanging on by the threads of their uneven souls.” That lyrical passage not only describes Gavin to a T, but all the other sad, struggling members of the Lola Quartet.