The Swallows by Lisa Lutz: Hilarious and Harrowing Account of Destroying the Status Quo because the Status is Not Quo

The Swallows

The Swallows

by Lisa Lutz

Hardcover, 399 pg.
Ballantine Books, 2019

Read: August 21 – 22, 2019

As I gazed at my students, I had the same thought I always had on the first day. They looked so young and innocent. Then I found a dead rat in the bottom of my desk drawer and remembered the tenet I had learned over the last eight years. The young may have a better excuse for cruelty, but they are no less capable of it.

For someone looking for omens, it’s odd how many exit signs I chose to ignore.

If a century of tradition were the only thing my time at Stonebridge brought to an end, I’d be okay with that. It’s the two deaths that keep me up at night.

How can I talk about The Swallows without ruining the experience? Not easily, and verbosely. Let’s see if I can manage it.

Structurally, it’s a boarding school book—a bunch of well-off (and/or scholarship) kids livingly largely without parental supervision and guidance, getting away with all sorts of things while the adults responsible for the supervision turn a blind eye, are honestly oblivious, or are complicit in the goings-on. At the end of the day, the real power is wielded by the students—a small sub-set of them, anyway—and there’s a split between those wanting to exercise their power for their own pleasure and benefit (largely male at the expense of female empowerment, self-respect, self-esteem, and dignity) and those, well not wanting that.

Largely the book focuses on a small group of female students sick and tired with the status quo (offended and angry, actually) who set out to expose the cabal and the horrible games they play with people in a way to salt the earth so it can’t be repeated. This seems like a tall order, but what choice do they have? They also have male students sympathetic to their cause and are willing to help out.

But also, there’s a teacher (or more) not willing to go along with this, and who knows something’s going on, so she does what she can to track it down to find ways to stop it (either herself or via student/faculty proxies). Her name is Alex Witt and she’s just arrived at Stonebridge Academy following an ignominious departure from Warren Prep. It takes her very little time to determine that something is rotten at Stonebridge and that a couple of her students are trying to do something about it. Instinctively in agreement with them, Alex does what she can to encourage the individuals to find one another and use the strength their numbers and collaboration can bring. One student described her as:

…my friend, my ally, my confidante. She charmed, teased, amused, incited, and befriended us.

Alexandra Witt was the pied piper of Stonebridge Academy.

Chapters are told from the perspective of Alex or some of the other faculty or various students—primarily from the perspective of Gemma Russo (the student quoted above). Gemma was well on her way to a time as a firebrand, but with nudges and aid from Alex, her crusade picks up momentum until upheaval comes to the existing conditions and then all bets are off (see that last line of the opening quotation). Essentially, Alex is John Keating without the stand-up or poetry, making Gemma Neil Perry, I guess.

The book starts off as offbeat, with Gemma as this strange instructor in an alien environment, trying to escape her legacy and to maybe find a little peace while the students are running around pretending to be revolutionaries. But it shifts at a certain point, and while still occasionally comic and never anything but fun to read, it sheds the comedy in favor of earnest emotions and motives and dangerous situations. You don’t notice it happening, but after a certain point, you’ll notice the ground has shifted. Lutz pulls that off really well.

There’s a lot of subtle work to the plot and the prose, and some that’s pretty obvious. But even the obvious is done well. There’s a reveal toward the end of the book that caught me so off-guard, but was so perfect I think I laughed out loud. I think this is technically streets ahead of Lutz’ previous work.

It’s a very different kind of humor than we got in The Spellman Files, but it’s probably as funny as Lutz has been since the third book in that series—but it’s mixed with the harsh realities of The Passenger and the feel of How to Start a Fire. Lutz puts on a clinic for naturally shifting tone and using that to highlight the important stories she’s telling.

There’s not a poorly designed or written character—I can’t say I liked all of them, or even most of them (many of them could use a few days in a pillory while fellow students threw rotten fruit or whatever at them)—but as players in this particular drama, they’re great. I was repeatedly torn between things happening too quickly, and yet not quickly enough—which I take as a sign that she nailed the pacing.

Because I’m really nervous about oversharing here, I’m going to wrap things up—but this is one you really should be reading. If it’s not on one of my Top 10 lists of 2019, I’ll be pretty shocked. I can’t think of many that I’ll put ahead of it at the moment.

From the funny and dark beginning, to the perfect and bitingly ominous last three paragraphs The Swallows is a winner. Timely and appropriate, but using tropes and themes that are familiar to readers everywhere, Lutz has given us a thriller for our day—provocative, entertaining, and haunting. This is one of those books that probably hews really close to things that could or have happened and you’re better off hoping are fictional. Lisa Lutz is always a very good author, The Swallows is Lutz at her best.


5 Stars

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Opening Lines—The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

Head & Shoulders used to tell us that, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That’s true for wearing dark shirts, and it’s especially true for books. Sometimes the characters will hook the reader, sometimes the premise, sometimes it’s just knowing the author—but nothing beats a great opening for getting a reader to commit. This is one of the better openings I’ve read recently. Would it make you commit?

Some teachers have a calling. I’m not one of them.

I don’t hate teaching. I don’t love it either. That’s also my general stance on adolescents. I understand that one day they’ll rule the world and we’ll all have to live with the consequences. But there’s only so much I’m willing to do to mitigate that outcome. You’ll never catch me leaping atop my desk, quoting Browning, Shakespeare, or Jay-Z. I don’t offer my students sage advice or hard-won wisdom. I don’t dive into the weeds of their personal lives, parsing the muck of their hormone-addled brains. And I sure as hell never learned as much from them as they did from me.

It’s just a job, like any other. It has a litany of downsides, starting with money and ending with money, and a host of other drawbacks in between. There are a few perks. I like having summers off; I like winter and spring breaks; I like not having a boss breathing over my shoulder; I like books and talking about books and occasionally meeting a student who makes me see the world sideways. But I don’t get attached. I don’t get involved. That was the plan, at least.

from The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz: A Woman on the Run from the Law, Her Past and her Present

The PassengerThe Passenger

by Lisa Lutz

Paperbacks, 302 pg.
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016

Read: July 28, 2018

I tried to look calm and collected as I gathered my things under Ruth’s watch, but I could feel this all-over shiver, a constant vibration of nerves that I had a hard time believing no one else could see.

“You in some kid of trouble?” Ruth asked.

“No trouble, I said. “I just found a place to stay, long-term.”

“Don’t fool yourself,” she said. “It’s all temporary.”

Tanya Dubois’ husband died in a stupid household accident. She wasn’t heartbroken by this, but she wasn’t pleased about it. Especially once she realized that while it was an accident, it was one that would at least get the police to take a good look at her while they were deciding that. So she tried to cover things up, only to realize very quickly that she couldn’t, and that be starting to try, she’d made things look less like an accident. So the police would look even harder at her than they would’ve before. This would be a real problem for her because, technically speaking, Tanya Dubois’ doesn’t actually exist. So she grabs her dead husband’s truck and as much cash as she can get (hitting up a few ATM’s while she’s at it to get more) and splits.

She trades in the truck for something else, trades in her (dyed) blonde hair for something shorter and brown, a wardrobe change and became a new person — she says “I looked like so many women you’ve seen before I doubt you could’ve picked me out of a lineup.” Which is a pretty telling way of talking. She’s also able to make a phone call and demand a new name, new identification and some cash. By the time she arrives in Austin, she’s Amelia Keen.

Amelia meets a bartender named Blue, who sees through her right away, but isn’t going to try to turn her in or anything. Mostly, she wants to know where she got such a great passport. Not that either woman tells the other what brought them to the name and place they’re at, but they know that something similar as brought them to this point. Neither trusts the other, but in one way or another, to one extent or another, they need each other. At least for a little while — maybe longer.

At some point, for reasons you should discover for yourself, she leaves Austin and heads west. Then she has to leave that one behind and head elsewhere — eventually, she covers a pretty decent amount of ground, and involves herself in some pretty interesting situations — becoming both a hero and a villain on multiple occasions. All the time proving what Ruth said above, “It’s all temporary.” Well, except one thing — the past. That’s forever, as Tanya/Amelia/etc. learns.

Scattered throughout the book are emails between a Ryan and a Jo — starting years before the Tanya’s husband’s tragic fall, but eventually catching up to the present time. These provide us with a good idea of the life that was left behind by the woman who lived as Tanya and Amelia and so many others all without coming out and telling us that led to her leaving.

Something about Blue made me think of Alice Morgan from the first series/season of Luther (yes, I know she’s in more than that, but keep that vision of her in your mind) — and that image stuck, I don’t care what Lutz said she looked like or sounded like — I heard and saw an American version of Alice when Blue was around. Not the murder her own parents vibe — but the charming, dangerous, potentially duplicitous and erratic, while friendly and helpful vibe. (wow. Could I have qualified that comparison more? Probably, but I’ll hold back)

I never had a good handle on Tanya/Amelia/etc., primarily because I don’t think she did either. We (the readers, and I think she herself) got close to something real with Debra Maze — but she had to abandon that one quickly (too quickly, I liked that existence for her, as doomed as she and the readers knew it was).

There are plenty of other great characters, great moments through the book — some horrifying, some tense, some . . . I don’t know what to say. There’s a Sheriff from Wyoming — he’s not Walt Longmire, but they’d probably get along just fine — who is probably my favorite non-Tanya/etc. character in the book. We don’t get enough of him, but I’m not sure that more of him wouldn’t have hurt the story overall. There’s another bartender who is nothing like Blue, and probably one of the better people we meet in The Passenger, some depraved folks as well — one family that you cannot help but feel horrible for.

There’s a good number of twists along the way, a reveal or two that are really well executed — one I didn’t see coming (not only didn’t see coming, I didn’t even consider as an option). In general some pretty good writing and story telling.

I’ve been trying to get to this for years — and every time I get close (close = it’s one or two down on my list), I have one of those “Squirrel!” moments, and forget all about it. Well, I finally got to it — and was honestly underwhelmed, maybe it was the mental build-up. It didn’t have the Lutz humor, that’s for sure — even How to Start a Fire had some good chuckles. But that’s okay, she doesn’t have to be funny to be good (see the non-funny moments in How to Start a Fire). I also think Karen E. Olson’s Black Hat series handles the woman running from her identity and past better (at least in a way that captures the tension and the fear better). Which is not to say, at all, that this is a bad book — it’s not. It’s also not as good as I think Lutz is capable of.

Oh, and the story behind Tanya/etc.’s tattoo? I loved it. Should probably give the book another half-star just for it.

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3.5 Stars

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

How to Start a Fire How to Start a Fire

by Lisa Lutz

Hardcover, 337 pg.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
Read: June 5 – 6, 2015
I really enjoyed Lisa Lutz’s latest, best, and most mature novel and want to encourage you to give it a read. That said, I’m not really sure how to start this post — or how to finish it, now that I think about it. It’s not really a plot-driven book, it’s more about the relationships between the three main characters, and others in their lives. But, it’s really difficult to talk about the book without talking about the two (maybe three) plot points that drive the whole thing.

Early on, I jotted down the note, “I’m either going to love or hate this book,” and while I stayed in the former camp, I could easily see where some wouldn’t (a quick skim of goodreads today, suggests I was right). This book plays with chronology, skipping around throughout the 20+ year history of the characters (plus some in-chapter flashbacks), with no easily noticeable pattern. So, in the first few chapters (most of Part One), once I started a new chapter, I’d have to flip back to the first page of the 3-4 previous chapters to make sure I was placing the current one in the right spot on my mental timeline. Eventually, I didn’t have to physically turn the pages, and was able to re-arrange things without much thought — and I know two other readers that experienced the same

At its core, How to Start a Fire is about the relationships of three women over time, from meeting in college through everything that happens over the next twenty plus years — ups, downs, fights, make-ups, forgiveness, betrayal, estrangement, personal growth, self-destruction, and the ability of friendship to forget all of that and just care in the moment. To boil it down to its essence: real friendship.

I had to repeatedly remind myself that this was a Lisa Lutz novel, it didn’t feel like one. Not any of The Spellman Files or Heads you Lose, this was a totally different creature (not being a mystery novel plays into that, obviously). Of course, like with my fixation on chronology eventually I got into the book and stopped caring about that. Most of the humor is different, most of the heart is different — the types of people are different, too. Still, the humor is solid, the heart is genuine, and the people are, y’know, people.

Yet . . . there’s no denying the Lutz DNA here. The three main characters were aggressively quirky like Izzy or Rae, Anna ‘s brother could’ve been David), and Malcom has a very Henry-esque quality. There’s so much more about the novel to think about than the parallels to the Spellman books. I don’t want to focus on it, but I did make those notes at one point. I think if I hadn’t written it down, I’d have forgotten about it by the time I reached the end.

This is Chick Lit that can be appreciated by the non-Chick reader* — there’s a little bit of something for just about everything in these pages, laughs, chuckles, an “Aww” or three, and maybe a something to make your eyes misty. It’s a bit too fresh for me to confirm this, but I’m betting this is one of those novels that rewards re-reads (especially when you’re not trying to figure out what’s going on in the opening chapters). Not my favorite Lutz book, but probably her best — and it demonstrates what many of her readers have suspected: she can write whatever she sets her mind to. Frankly, I want something back in the comedy/crime area again, but I’ll line up for whatever.

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* Which is the mark of the best of Chick-Lit — or any genre — even those outside the target demographic can appreciate it.

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4 Stars

The Last Word by Lisa Lutz

The Last Word
The Last Word by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the constant battles in The Spellman Files has been Izzy’s struggle with maturity and responsibility — there are people who just don’t grow up, who are locked into an eternal childhood. And then there are people like Izzy who have waged war on their impending adulthood. Her struggles are at times as trying to the reader as they are for those closest to her — friends/family/boyfriends — but primarily they amuse us (this is due to the skill of the Lutz more than Izzy’s inherent charm). Trail of the Spellmans ended with Izzy taking some determined steps towards maturity, however reluctantly, and The Last Word starts off showing how poorly that’s going.

Oddly enough, given her determined adolescence, I’ve always liked Izzy most when she’s interacting with the elderly (other than her grandmother — but I don’t know who could be likable while dealing with her). Early on, it was Mort Schilling — who I’ve missed, and now we get Edward Slayter and Charlie. While they serve similar roles in the narratives (a mature advisory/near-parental voice that Izzy sort-of listens to), Mr. Slayter and Charlie aren’t anywhere as amusing as Mort was.

These are ostensibly mystery novels, and there are a handful this time ’round. More than one of which focuses on Mr. Slayter (keeping this vague for spoiler reasons), so we see Izzy at her strongest. There’s some mysterious antics involving Rae, of course — and I’ve found these stories to be harder to enjoy lately, even more than Izzy’s Pernella Pan syndrome. And the requisite mystery about what Albert and Olivia are up to — once this moves beyond them repaying Izzy for being such a lousy and defiant employee/daughter for yeas, this becomes the emotional core of the book and is probably the best use of these characters in the series. The other cases are entertaining enough, and definitely provide a good balance to the more emotionally charged and serious plot lines.

Maybe it’s just me, but I sound negative about this book so far. And I don’t mean to! As always, it’s a pleasure to spend time with these characters and in this world. Izzy’s TV taste remains impeccable. And Lutz’s breezy style can carry even the most problematic characters and stories in a way that seems effortless (and is undoubtedly very difficult to do successfully). The character development here is a natural — and needed — progression from Trail, even if it means this isn’t the laughter-filled read the first few were. I wasn’t entirely thrilled with where this book left the family and business, but I understand (and would defend) the choices Lutz made — and I’m sure in a few weeks, I’ll only look back on this novel positively. But right now, my reaction to the last couple of chapters are coloring my mood.

Still, highly recommended — throughout the reading of this, I had fantasies of taking a few days off work to do nothing but re-read this series back-to-back, and that still sounds like a great way to spend some downtime.

Dusted Off: Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz, David Hayward

Heads You LoseHeads You Lose by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a hook, what a killer (no pun intended) concept–an established mystery writer sends off a chapter of a new novel to an ex-boyfriend, asking him to collaborate with her on the novel. She’ll take the odd-numbered chapters, him the even. Interspersed in these chapters are emails sent back and forth, along with other comments they make on the other’s work, as the two stumble through the writing process.

And while that’s amusing enough, the actual novel ends up being a pretty good read. In a small California town, a pot-growing brother and sister team find a headless body in their backyard. They try (a couple of times) to dispose of the body so they can continue their growing without police interference, and then take it upon themselves to solve this murder (and the others that follow). A very unlikely crime stopping pair, to be sure.

The novel is filled with quirky characters, twists and turns that no one (even 50% of the authors) can see coming. Far more than just a catchy hook–Heads You Lose is an entertaining crime novel that’ll leave you wanting more.