Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Review: "Loner" by Teddy Wayne

"All I could think about, running in a loop, was Veronica Morgan Wells, Veronica Morgan Wells, Veronica Morgan Wells. The quadrisyllable that halves its beats at the middle name, dividing again at its pluralized terminus of subterranean depths. The percussively alert 'c' drowsily succumbing to the dozing 's.' Perfectly symmetrical initials, the 'V' found twice upside-down in the 'M,' inverted once more in the 'W,' and, if spoken, easily confused with a German luxury automaker."

David Federman is an academically gifted student, but he's never been able to make much of an impression socially. While he had a group of friends in high school, they all tended to be those on the social fringe. As an incoming freshman at Harvard, he hopes things will be different. He's ready to trade witty barbs with fellow classmates, become noted for his academic prowess, forge friendships that will last for a lifetime, and, of course, finally have some luc in the romance department as well.

But his chance to reinvent himself socially doesn't seem to be working, and he finds himself part of a very similar group of social misfits as he had in high school, although this time there are a few female members, and he seems to have a reasonably easy rapport (and a great deal in common) with Sara, one of the group's members. And then David sees Veronica Morgan Wells. Veronica is beautiful, intelligent, worldly, and seems to carry herself with immense poise and social grace, the antithesis of David's life to date.

David is convinced that Veronica is the one for him, and all he has to do is prove it. He does everything he can to set up situations where she'll get to know the "real" David, to see him for the smart, witty, generous, romantic guy he knows he is. But as David's obsession with Veronica grows, he starts to make questionable decisions that have ramifications for him academically, socially, and morally. Even as he realizes that Veronica isn't the person she seems to be, he still feels the need to finally be noticed by her as an equal.

Loner is an interesting look at how someone who has always been on the fringes of life—partially by choice and partially because of the social pecking order common to high school and college—finally wants to be noticed by the "in-crowd." It's a book about struggling to find yourself when you appear to be surrounded by a sea of people who already have found themselves, and how feeling you have never really made an impact on anyone starts to take its toll. It's also a book about how we fail to notice what we actually have as we strive for what we think will be better.

Above all, however, Loner is about obsession. David isn't quite the stalker that we've traditionally seen in books and movies, yet you can feel just how palpable his longing is. As you watch this mild-mannered, significantly intelligent young man transform into someone completely different, you wonder whether these characteristics have been latent in him all along, or whether he simply began cracking under the strain of desire and the need for acceptance.

I thought this was a good book, but my main problem was that I found David not particularly likable, which, I guess, is understandable given his actions. I understood his desire to be noticed, to transcend the social doldrums in which he always seemed to find himself, and his inability to recognize what he actually had right in front of him. But as his desire for Veronica intensified, I didn't find him sympathetic in the least, so while I was interested in seeing how the story unfolded, I didn't really care about his plight.

I've never read anything by Teddy Wayne before, and while I didn't find David to be a particularly compelling character the entire book, I thought Wayne did a great job with the "Harvard voice"—the types of things Harvard freshmen talk about when having social conversation. Even David's own thoughts, as evidenced in the quote that began this review, were well-voiced. This was an intriguing look at the downside of college pressure, and Wayne definitely kept me reading to see what happened.

NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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