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Sun July 6, 2008
No One You Know
This novel may seem at first to be genre fiction, but it is in fact literary fiction, the best sort. Richmond explores the devastating effects of grief and survivor guilt. She demonstrates how little, really, we know about even the people closest to us.
By Don Noble
Michelle Richmond broke onto the scene with a volume of stories, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and followed that with two novels, Dream of the Blue Room and The Year of Fog. She has also been publishing in magazines like Playboy and The Oxford American. Richmond, a native of Mobile and UA graduate who now lives in San Francisco, will break away from the pack with this third novel.
Set mostly in San Francisco, No One You Know begins as a kind of cold case murder mystery. Ellie Enderlin is a 38-year-old single woman whose life was changed, wrenched from its quiet path, 20 years earlier, when the body of her sister Lila, 20, was discovered, head bashed, in a wooded area near the Russian River. No one was ever arrested. Lila was a math genius, headed for certain stardom and big prizes in the world of higher math. Ellie, the survivor, was an average young woman, an English major.
Ellie's young lit professor, Andrew Thorpe, Ph.D., seems to be a compassionate, understanding soul. Ellie confides in her mentor, telling him absolutely everything she knows about Lila and her family. Professor Thorpe, the rat, betrays Lila by publishing Murder By The Bay, A True Tale of San Francisco Noir.
At first, Thorpe pretends to have high-minded motives--Lila's story deserves to be told, it is a memorial to her, perhaps some reader will remember a detail and new evidence will be uncovered, blah, blah. I hated him unreservedly until he admitted he had to get out of the English department. He loved students and teaching, but had no idea "how much jealousy and petty politics" were involved.
Thorpe's book has vile consequences. Making the family tragedy a public spectacle helps destroy the senior Enderlins' marriage. Ellie herself seems unable to open up to any man and achieve a loving, trusting relationship. More importantly, Thorpe had concluded in the book that Lila was murdered by her secret married lover, the math professor Dr. Peter McConnell, whose life is also then ruined--he's fired, unemployable, his wife leaves him: the full catastrophe.
As you might expect, in this novel one hears a good deal about the Goldbach Conjecture and other higher math issues. Also one learns that Ellie is a "cupper," a "nose" in coffee circles, able to distinguish, as with wine, acidity, body, balance, aroma, which can itself be broken down into dry, sugary, or enzymatic, which itself can be subdivided into flowery, fruity, or herby?and there's lots more. Ellie and her coworkers sniff a bag of beans and exclaim "Mmmmm, chocolate and toasted hazelnut?cayenne and citrus?A lovely vanilla bourbon note at the end." To its credit, this novel does not include a half dozen recipes at the end of each chapter.
Twenty years pass and Ellie is on the job, in a village in Nicaragua, when she runs into McConnell, who claims innocence. Both their lives, it seems, were ruined by Lila's murder and Thorpe's book--the publishing scoundrel. But if McConnell was not the killer, who was? Thorpe himself? A rival student math genius, the janitor at the college? It was probably someone she knew because, we are told, "Only 13.5% of murder victims do not know their assailants? Murder is rarely random." Ellie wants to debate how rare 13.5 % is, but still, the point is taken.
This novel may seem at first to be genre fiction, but it is in fact literary fiction, the best sort. Richmond explores the devastating effects of grief and survivor guilt. She demonstrates how little, really, we know about even the people closest to us. Ellie feels her family would have been better off if she, not the genius Lila, had died. Ellie says in her 38 years she never did anything extraordinary. Well, really now, who does?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.