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A Person of Interestby Susan Choi
Synopses & Reviews
From an acclaimed novelist, an emotionally complex and riveting story of suspicion, innocence, and regret.
When a mail bomb explodes in the campus office next door, Lee, an Asian American math professor at a second-tier university in the Midwest, comes under suspicion. The authorities believe he may be the infamous brain bomber, an elusive terrorist whose primary targets are prominent scientists and mathematicians.
In the midst of campus tumult and grief over the star computer scientist who was killed by the bomb, Lee receives a disturbing letter from a figure in his past. Certain he is being targeted for revenge, he begins confronting key events in his life. Misunderstood by the people around him, Lee is not conscious that his behavior has begun to heighten suspicion in the minds of his colleagues, students, and neighbors, leading the FBI to designate him a person of interest and pushing his life and reputation to the verge of ruin.
Intricately plotted and engrossing, A Person of Interest asks how far one man can run from his past, and explores the impact of scrutiny and suspicion in an age of terror. With its propulsive drive and vividly realized characters, Susan Choi's latest novel is as thrilling as it is lyrical, and confirms her place as one of the most important young novelists chronicling the American experience.
"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 migr 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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Susan Choi looks for essential American characters in the most peculiar places. Five years ago, she wrote a novel about Patty Hearst called 'American Woman' that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and now she's back with 'A Person of Interest,' a piercing story about the Unabomber that's one of the most remarkable novels to have emerged from our age of terror. 'American Woman' followed the Hearst... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) case closely, but Choi's success this time has nothing to do with fidelity to the historical record; indeed, the anti-technology assassin, Ted Kaczynski, and the criminal investigation to stop him comprise only a small, late part of this novel. Instead, what makes 'A Person of Interest' so brilliant and unsettling is Choi's creation of an old man who becomes an object of suspicion. Twice divorced, friendless, the man known only as Dr. Lee is an embittered math professor at a mediocre university somewhere in the Midwest. He seems no more endearing than Emma Bovary or Humbert Humbert, but he's just as mesmerizing. In his youth, he emigrated from a repressive Asian country (never specified), and now with his slightly odd, distinctly unfriendly demeanor, he scratches at the xenophobia lying beneath our liberal sensibilities. But in the depths of Lee's peculiar foreignness, Choi touches something universal and raw and irresistibly sympathetic. Her merciless knowledge of him, her sardonic analysis of his anxiety, his shame and his compulsive jealousy result in a cringe-inducing performance, a tour de force that would cause Flaubert to cry out, 'Dr. Lee, c'est moi!' The novel opens with an explosion in the office next to Lee that's so powerful it knocks him off his chair. As he sits crumpled on the floor waiting for paramedics to arrive, he knows it must have been a package bomb. 'The explosion had not breached the wall,' Choi writes. 'The work it had wrought on the far side was left for Lee to imagine, as he felt the force wash over him, felt his heart quail, and felt himself briefly thinking, Oh, good.' The incinerated victim next door is Dr. Hendley, a young hotshot computer scientist, 'an exemplar of a new breed of professor, worldly, engaged, more likely to publish in a magazine full of ads for a mysterious item called PlayStation than in a moribund university quarterly, read only by the frail, graying men (and rare woman) whose work was included that month.' Lee has always found Hendley's popularity — with the students, other faculty members, even the world at large — annoying, but until the explosion, he'd never realized the intensity of his hatred. Lee 'was deep in disgusted reflection on his own pettiness when the bomb squad found him, but, unsurprisingly, they had assumed he was simply in shock.' So begins a story of ever increasing self-consciousness and self-loathing. Step by step, Choi follows Lee through the horrible days after the bombing in a narrative voice that manages to channel his bile while also satirizing it with blistering commentary. At the hospital where reporters are waiting for word of Hendley's condition, Lee delivers a rousing condemnation of the attack, but he finds the media glare and his colleagues' sympathy deeply irritating. Among other things, he's infuriated by the realization that he's not important enough to merit assassination. Conflicted and disturbed by his own pettiness, he avoids the grief counselors, the public expressions of remorse, the lachrymose well-wishers, but his remoteness only makes him seem more peculiar, then suspicious. Try as he might — 'in a furnace of fury and shame' — he just can't behave in the way he knows people want him to. 'His perpetual crime,' Choi writes, 'was the failure to keep up appearances.' In the middle of this ordeal, he receives a taunting letter from an old acquaintance named Gaither, an evangelical Christian he hasn't seen since they were graduate students together. At this point, Choi breaks the story along two different timelines: The letter draws Lee's mind back to those early years in America and his broken friendship with Gaither. The more he ruminates on their hurt feelings, the more convinced he becomes that his old friend is the assassin and that the bomb Hendley opened was, in fact, intended for him. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of Lee's paranoia, it's a conclusion he finds at once terrifying and flattering. (Choi recently told a reporter that her own father, also a mathematician, went to graduate school with Ted Kaczynski in the '60s.) Meanwhile, Lee's increasingly nervous behavior attracts the attention of the FBI, which considers him 'a person of interest.' Of course, that added scrutiny, magnified by his neighbors' eagerness to ostracize him (or worse), only exaggerates his peculiarity. (Readers may be reminded of the devastating investigation of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.) Choi notes coolly that Lee suffers from 'the immigrant's sense of hopeless illegitimacy and impending exposure.' But I don't care if your family came over on the Mayflower — only the most pathologically overconfident person could read these flawless scenes without resonating to Lee's anxiety. Amid the increasingly aggressive FBI investigation, some of the long flashbacks to Lee's graduate school years and his failed marriages feel like unneeded detours, but ultimately the two story lines play off each other in the most fascinating ways. The sweaty pace of the contemporary thriller complements the quiet tragedy of the older, domestic drama, and through it all runs Choi's scathing, illuminating scrutiny. The novel's concluding scenes mark a surprising, not entirely successful shift. The plot, so careful and precise up to this point, grows oddly rushed and surreal: The climax passes in an unlikely, blurry scene. What's more strange, though, is the tempering of Choi's tone. Her mordant voice falls away, and for the remaining pages Lee is described by a gentle, even sentimental narrator whose voice is difficult to square with the bulk of the novel's steely wit. Perhaps Choi is merely showing a little mercy after holding her antihero on the end of a pin for so many pages, but it seems like a failure of nerve or the intervention of those Hollywood bosses who order up endings in response to preview questionnaires. No matter — something to argue about with the book club. Choi remains, more than ever, a writer of interest. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The ending, a redeeming one, is all action. That it is superbly told is no surprise. That its melodrama comes out as gravely real is due to Choi's profound rendering of her protagonist's estrangement in an estranged society, and even to the slow and hard-going detail with which she has established it." Boston Globe
"Choi's descriptive flair, the evocation of Lee's turmoil, and the reaction of colleagues and neighbors contribute to a different type of portraiture...than one would expect from what is in some respects a domestic-terror thriller." Chicago Tribune
"Choi's precise, cadenced prose alternates between plain-spokenness and lyrical dazzle. Her long, complex sentences compel us to follow wherever they go, and to admire the quiet authority, at once soothing and gripping, with which they arrive there." Francine Prose, New York Times
"The novel is a testament to Choi's deft handling of her material. She reworks the classic detective novel as literary fiction, and shows how, given the right set of circumstances, any one of us could be labeled 'a person of interest.'" San Francisco Chronicle
"The plot is intricate but the story never feels contrived or labored. Choi writes hard and true." Chicago Sun-Times
With its propulsive drive, vividly realized characters, and profound observations about soul and society, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Susan Choi's latest novel is as thrilling as it is lyrical, and confirms her place as one of the most important novelists chronicling the American experience. Intricately plotted and psychologically acute, A Person of Interest exposes the fault lines of paranoia and dread that have fractured American life and asks how far one man must go to escape his regrets. Professor Lee, an Asian-born mathematician near retirement age would seem the last person to attract the attention of FBI agents. Yet after a colleague becomes the latest victim of a serial bomber, Lee must endure the undermining power of suspicion and face the ghosts of his past.
About the Author
Susan Choi is the author of American Woman, a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, and The Foreign Student, which won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction. She coedited with David Remnick the anthology Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
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