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by Susan Richards Shreve
Plume, July 2007
256 pages
ISBN: 0452288495

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Quiet, self-conscious biology student Claire Frayn, lives in Washington, DC with her close-knit large extended family. Her brother Steven also lives at home and he goes to George Washington University with Claire as a law student. Steven is happy to be known as an outspoken person, but his speeches and articles could be very dangerous since this book is set in a world of the near future, where the fears about national security and how Americans should act and speak out have become even more of a very sensitive issue.

Steven's latest op-ed piece is due to be published that day and the family is in fear of what will become of their aunt's job, since she works for the government office Steven is criticizing.

As usual, Claire meets Steven in the library at the end of their day. They are outside leaving and Claire is just looking in her bag for her umbrella when Steven is shot. Dead, he lands right by Claire. That is the beginning of the cataclysmic change for Claire and her family.

As each member of the large extended family tries to find a way to live through the tragedy, a man who claims to be a friend and a fan of Steven's contacts Claire and he says he knows who killed him. Claire finds herself pulled into a plan to get involved with this man and with the supposed killer. Soon her life undergoes more changes that she would have ever dreamed of before Steven was killed.

Because this story is set in a future that's right nearby, the feelings of discomfort are both familiar and strange. The world is just a bit more out of whack than it is now, so the readers are prepared to accept most of what is told that happens. The streets are no longer safe and snipers and shootings are all around the population as it goes about its everyday business of shopping and usual family problems. And because the world has turned frightening, we believe that everything that goes on has to do with the politically trying times and the people in the book also respond to Steven's death as a rallying call for political activism.

Very much a so-called artsy book, A STUDENT OF LIVING THINGS didn't appeal to me. Claire is supposed to be terribly sensitive and thoughtful, but she seems to be cut off from reality. She's a young woman but she doesn't have an inner thought about her looks or her lack of a male companion. In fact, she doesn't seem to know or care what her looks are; she mentions her body as if it is something distant from her.

She is a biology student and her mother calls her "a student of living things" but even as a small child she keeps her room filled with dead things, both in preservatives and dried. She mentions that her room has a smell, but she so likes to look at dead things that her family members even look for more dead creatures to add to her collection. All of this is supposed to show how sensitive Claire is, but it strikes me more as a profile of an unbalanced personality.

When Steven is killed Claire is all too willing to listen to the first person who has a theory about his death. She asks for no proof and logic doesn't even come up in her long series of moody inner thoughts.

Another thing that irked me, the so-called killer was a musician, and he writes to Claire using a series of piano pieces, all rather tepid and over wrought. If the reader doesn't play the piano I can't imagine what the appearance of printed musical segments can mean to that person. Maybe that is the point; the non-musical readers are now separated from a part of the book as if there's a secret they will never understand.

A STUDENT OF LIVING THINGS is definitely for those literature-reading groups who love to sit around and discuss how feelings are more important than reality. If that's your taste, you've found a gold mine. If not, A STUDENT OF LIVING THINGS isn't something you want to read.

Reviewed by A. L. Katz, June 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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