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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 41.
- Review Date: 2007-11-05
- Reviewer: Staff
After fictionalizing elements of the Patty Hearst kidnapping for her second novel (the 2004 Pulitzer finalist American Woman), Choi combines elements of the Wen Ho Lee accusations and the Unabomber case to create a haunting meditation on the myriad forms of alienation. The suggestively named Lee, as he's called throughout, is a solitary Chinese émigré math professor at the end of an undistinguished Midwestern university career. He remains bitter after two very different failed marriages, despite his love for Esther, his globe-trotting grown daughter from the first marriage. As the book opens, Lee's flamboyant, futurist colleague in the next-door office, Hendley, is gravely wounded when Hendley opens a package that violently explodes. Two pages later, a jealous, resentful Lee “felt himself briefly thinking Oh, good.” As a did-he or didn't-he investigation concerning Lee, the novel's person of interest, unfolds, Lee's carefully ordered existence unravels, and chunks of his painful past are forced into the light. While a cagily sympathetic FBI man named Jim Morrison and Lee's former colleague Fasano (who links the bombings to several other technologists) play well-turned supporting roles, Choi's reflections from Lee's gruffly brittle point of view are as intricate and penetrating as the shifting intrigue surrounding the bomb. The result is a magisterial meditation on appearance and misunderstanding as it plays out for Lee as spouse, colleague, exile and citizen. (Feb.)
Murder haunts a college town
Shades of the Unabomber case and the Richard Jewell Olympic bombing debacle color A Person of Interest, Susan Choi's engrossing third novel.
Half mystery, half character study, the book follows Professor Lee, an Asian-born immigrant in his 60s who teaches mathematics at a lower-tier Midwestern college. The story opens with a bang, as Lee is stunned by the sound of an explosion in the office next to his. As it turns out, his colleague, the young, "hotshot" computer professor Rick Hendley, has opened a letter bomb.
Hendley later dies at the hospital. And as the investigation commences, Lee's reputation is killed as well. Painted initially by the media as the almost-victim next door, Lee eventually becomes a "person of interest" in the case. And Choi does an admirable job of portraying the terror, helplessness and rage of someone being harshly persecuted in the court of public opinion. This is especially commendable because Choi deftly elicits sympathy from the reader for a character who is not really sympathetic at all. Lee does, in some ways, fit the profile of one who might be culpable of such a crime. An introvert who is often lacking in empathy himself, Lee is also a jealous man. His initial, callous inner response to the bombing ("oh, good," he thinks) reveals to the readersand to himselfhow resentful he was of Hendley's status at the college.
And the portrait of Lee's past, weaved into the novel in flashback-fashion, is not one of a benevolent figure, either. While in graduate school, Lee befriended a fellow student, Lewis Gaitherand then stole his wife. It's a letter that may be from Gaither, all these years later and immediately following the bombing, which sparks the investigators' interest in Lee.
So why are we sympathetic to Lee's plight? Because although he is deeply flawed, that doesn't mean he's a killer. In Lee, the reader can see anyone who has been investigated and thought guiltybefore they could even plead their case. A Person of Interest is a page-turning read that makes you think about the way you think.
Rebecca K. Stropoli writes from Brooklyn.