A Student of Living Things

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9780452288492: A Student of Living Things
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The Frayn family of Washington, D.C., is coping pretty well with twenty-first century realities of life?snipers, bomb threats, natural disasters, etc. Then, in the moment it takes Claire Frayn to dig for her umbrella, her politically outspoken brother Steven is shot down right next to her on the library steps.

Steven?s murder shatters the tightly knit Frayn family, and his sister Claire becomes determined to unravel the mystery of why her brother was killed. Searching for answers, Claire meets Victor, an enigmatic stranger who claims to know who killed Steven. Claire begins an unusual correspondence with the suspected assassin, but instead of uncovering the truth of her brother?s death, she finds herself drawn to this man, and increasingly apprehensive about cooperating with Victor?s plans to avenge Steven?s death.

A gripping family drama with an unusual love story at its center, this is an intimate portrait of grief, the futility of revenge, and the miracle of forgiveness.

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About the Author:

Susan Richards Shreve has published twelve novels and twenty-six books for children, and has coedited five anthologies. A professor at George Mason University, she has received several grants for fiction including from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a former visiting professor at Princeton and Columbia universities.

From The Washington Post:

Susan Richards Shreve's 13th novel opens in the near future in a Washington, D.C., beset by suspiciously familiar woes: floods, snipers, bombs. Claire Frayn, the narrator of A Student of Living Things, says, "This civil war is what earthquakes must have seemed like centuries ago, before anything was understood about fault lines or tectonic plates. . . . Days go by with nothing, and then a day of trouble will follow."

Claire's day of trouble is devastating. Her adored older brother, Steven, is gunned down -- assassinated, she believes -- on the steps of George Washington University. (One of the eerie pleasures of this novel is its invocation of familiar D.C. landscapes in a threatening time.) Steven was a political activist. The day he's killed, his op-ed protesting the counterterrorism tactics of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division runs in The Washington Post and a Department of Justice flag appears on the Frayns' front porch.

Shreve's novels are fairly conventional in terms of structure and language, but her subjects (the legacy of slavery, the changing face of feminism) are often provocative. Here, she makes the bold move of including the entire text of Steven's impassioned op-ed in an otherwise unusually domestic thriller.

Her style is brisk and engaging, even tantalizing, particularly in the first half of the book. An air of menace yields to a sense of anticipation as Claire seems about to crack open the mystery of her brother's death. She and her family are vividly drawn: Claire, a graduate student of biology, knows all about the natural world but has been curiously sheltered from men. Her father is a professor of medicine, who retreats nightly to a hangar in the back garden where he rebuilds antique planes; her mother, Julia, whose parents fled both Nazi Europe and Pinochet-era Chile, is angry and vibrant. The parental stories suggest the motif of flight, but their crowded little household in Bethesda is an extension of Julia's longing for community, and includes Claire's paternal uncle, maternal aunt, and cousin (who's lost a leg to a convenience-store bombing). Her aunt Faith works for the Civil Rights Division and, in an ominous moment, is fired the day Steven is murdered.

Most of the novel proceeds as a cross between a thriller and a murder mystery, and the suspense builds effectively. So, too, does anticipation that the novel's political concerns will reveal more than a plot twist. Claire joins forces with a friend of Steven's to track down the killer and is soon on the trail of a composer named Benjamin Reed, whose father, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, was Aunt Faith's boss at the Justice Department.

Claire writes to Benjamin, claiming that she too is a composer -- a ruse that yields one of the book's most surprising and inventive elements. As Claire begins to fall in epistolary love with Benjamin, the book begins to include the score of actual passages of music. Even musical illiterates will have no trouble picking up the mood, which is also described in dialogue. Less successful visually are a series of entries from Claire's childhood diaries. Though her biological observations in a childhood diary make for a good extended metaphor about how humans respond to disaster, some of the entries don't sound as if they were written by a child, not even a very precocious one. Nor do the line illustrations suggest a child's drawing. That's a shame, because it's a good idea to include graphics in a novel about learning to read the world anew, and rich biological illustrations might have played a bigger role throughout.

Illustrations, however, are often beyond an author's control, and what is fully in Shreve's control here is generally thoughtful and considered. But there's a curious moment midway through the novel when Claire reports that every time she drives her mother around Sheridan Circle, Julia reminds her "that a car bomb had exploded there, killing some important Latin Americans, maybe Chilean, maybe Argentinean -- she didn't know, and she didn't remember why they were important." It's inconceivable that anyone who fled Chile would not remember the 1976 assassination of the Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant, Ronnie Moffitt. Is this an authorial slip, or a suggestion that Julia Frayn suppresses, or half-suppresses, political memories?

The question of suppressing politics arises again at the novel's end. As Steven's murder is solved, a troubling incident in the Frayn family history is finally confronted -- but the content of that op-ed that appeared the day he died is never fully discussed. It's confusing, too, and more than a little frustrating, to see Claire's aunt chatting so warmly with the assistant attorney general for civil rights who fired her so unfairly. Wise as Shreve is about family and forgiveness, I wish she had not abandoned the political issues she initially raised. Steven's murder may be solved, but Washington is still seething, and who better to confront the causes of unrest than a novelist as sharp as Shreve?

Reviewed by Valerie Sayers
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780670037582: A Student of Living Things

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ISBN 10:  0670037583 ISBN 13:  9780670037582
Publisher: Viking Adult, 2006
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Viking, 2006
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