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When First Love Is as Lethal as Religious Extremism

When First Love Is as Lethal as Religious Extremism

From Leal’s first appearance, he’s a harbinger of chaos. A former student with a shady back story as a prisoner in North Korea, he looms over the narrative, peppering the shifting, unsettling timeline of the love story. As Will and Phoebe picnic with mulled wine, make summer plans, rent a weekend house at the beach, Leal casts an ominous shadow for the reader, his chapters delivering a piecemeal sermon as he slowly and steadily pulls the young couple’s strings and lays out, log by log, what will be his final masterpiece: a pyre.

As the narrative escalates, the reader goes from a sane friend in a bar, listening impatiently as the storyteller gabs on about a new beau, red flags firing off in her head (Do you not see what’s happening?), to a paralyzed spectator of a five-car pileup on the TV screen. Each horrible act mounts on the others, as Phoebe’s narratives get closer and closer in tone and content to Leal’s.

On top of his pyre, Phoebe — a vessel through which life, or God, has poured trauma, grief, shame, discipline, love, loss of purpose and a desire to please — is splayed. It’s Will who strikes the match.

The action picks up quickly in the final chapters. (Readers may want to skip the jacket description, which contains a giant spoiler.) A wedge has been driven between the young lovers, and Will is left trying to piece together what happened to his grinning, gin-doling girlfriend. The details become sketchy and speculative; the narratives become unreliable.

This unusual novel, both raw and finely wrought, leaves the reader with very few answers and little to rely on. A love triangle between a young man, a young woman and a higher purpose is torched, with few witnesses to say what happened. Unsettled by all the charming that’s gone up in flames, Will and the reader are left alone together holding the ashes, some of the embers still burning to leave scars.

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