High school English teacher Alex Witt jumps from the frying pan into the fire when she takes a job at Stonebridge Academy, a Vermont boarding school, in Lisa Lutz's "The Swallows."
Alex doesn’t love teaching, but it’s a living, and she’s hoping for a new start at Stonebridge after a debacle sent her packing from her last job. Dean Gregory Stinson, a friend of Alex’s famous author father, Len Wilde, is happy to give her a place on staff, but a bait and switch has her teaching creative writing instead of English. Alex isn’t thrilled but settles into getting to know her class. Her initiation isn’t easy: Someone leaves a dead rat in her desk, and strange, vaguely threatening notes keep appearing at her barely livable cottage. Weeding out the good eggs from the troublemakers isn’t easy, but Alex gives it the college try and even makes a few (maybe) friends among the staff. When a student named Gemma Russo makes Alex aware of an exclusive online forum called the Darkroom, where Stonebridge boys post photos and text about their sexual exploits and girls are vigorously scored, Alex can’t ignore what’s happening, but she’s not eager to put herself out there in the face of adult enablers and vicious boys who will do anything to keep their toxic traditions alive. Luckily, Gemma is quietly recruiting an army to take the nasty little cabal down, and Alex offers guidance, never guessing just how far things might go. In 2009, when this is set, the term “boys will be boys” wasn’t yet being truly challenged as an acceptable explanation for entitled, misogynistic male behavior, and questions of consent weren’t at the forefront. Stonebridge is a perfect example of this kind of dysfunctional, entrenched culture. Lutz draws on the droll humor and idiosyncratic characterizations that make her "Spellman" novels so appealing, and just about no one is quite who they seem. But kindness and decency do manifest in surprising places, revealed through the alternating narratives of Alex, Gemma and others.
"The Swallows" is an offbeat, darkly witty pre-#MeToo revenge tale. The patriarchy doesn’t stand a chance.
(Lutz will speak and sign copies of her book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com.)
A page-turning family suspense
Against the backdrop of the 1970s gasoline crisis, members of a mid-Atlantic family identified only as the father, the mother, the boy and the girl struggle with separation and its attendant fears in Anthony Varallo's debut novel, "The Lines."
"When things separate, they double," the kids discover after their distant father moves into his own apartment and, soon enough, begins sharing it with a waitress from a local restaurant. Suddenly, the boy and girl have two homes, two mother figures and two beds. (The boy, exceptionally bright for a 7-year-old, thinks he dreams differently in the full-size than in the twin.) When their overwhelmed mother becomes involved with a drab man named Cliff, the boy and his nearly 10-year-old sister have Marcus, Cliff's spouting-off adolescent son, to contend with. Quietly unsettling details accrue: The sleepless girl hears repetitions of “how? how? how?” in her brother's oscillating room fan; the boy hears car crashes outside his bedroom window a year after two teens in the area died in an accident; the children's margarita-drinking Florida grandmother tosses off casually hurtful remarks. A master of narrative control, Varallo creates the kind of page-turning suspense you don't expect in a book like this. Potential dangers abound: the creepy guy on the bicycle the girl keeps spotting; the gas-powered mower the boy teaches himself to use on his own; Marcus' fondness for setting things on fire. The resilient children will emerge wiser and stronger from their ordeals. That likely won't be the case with their misguided parents, who don't know how to stop running on empty.
A darkly cutting investigation of dysfunction in which the kids, more often than not, are way sharper than the parents.