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In her debut as a novelist, Robin Kirman begins with a quick scene: A student reporter badgers a woman not terribly older than he is about a ten-year-old murder at her alma mater, Harvard. The interviewee is quite reluctant to say anything, and not only because she has an infant to attend to, as well as a husband being discharged from the hospital that day. Nonetheless, Georgia Calvin Reese, former lover of an alleged murderer, gives the young man a few moments. This is how Kirman frames her Bradstreet Gate, a curious tale presenting two questions: can a group dynamic be an accomplice to murder? And can a group dynamic echo for years, making the innocent guilty and vice versa?
That dynamic essentially involves five people. Four of them are students: Georgia, a honey-colored beauty; Charlie Flournoy, an awkward, working-class product of Long Island, and Alice Kovac, a Serbian-descended Midwesterner, plus the victim, Julie Patel. The alleged murderer is a young Crimson professor with a military and intelligence background, Rufus Storrow. The focus during the first 100 pages, though, is on the complex relationship of Georgia, Charlie, and Alice.
All three are recovering from strange childhoods. Georgia had been almost homeless, though not poverty-stricken; she and her famous photographer father were uprooted almost every year after his split from her mother. The striking young woman has learned to handle what comes her way because of her appearance. Alice, mannish but eventually hip, is escaping from a provincial Serbian enclave in Cleveland; her family moved there following the early death of an accomplished, broad-minded father who left her in the charge of her mother, a narrow-minded, reluctant American, and an ignorant but wealthy uncle. Charlie, who has dreams of work in the intelligence community, is simply escaping his abusive father — think Archie Bunker, but angrier.
Both Alice and Charlie are attracted to their beautiful friend. Georgia, however, allows herself to be drawn into a clandestine affair with Storrow, who eventually became Charlie’s teacher.
Kirman draws these four characters with loving nuance. I’m guessing the students are based on the author’s classmates at Yale or, later, Columbia, or perhaps students she taught herself at Columbia. Storrow is a familiar type — the proper young prof — but is also convincing. He’s very polite (usually) and over-concerned about being discovered in his impropriety; his weekend couplings with Georgia take place in Manhattan. Even a somewhat clichéd, minor character like Detective Lombardi (“early 50s, graying, with fleshy, pockmarked cheeks [and] a high potbelly”) engages in a perfectly intelligent and believable questioning of Georgia once Kirman jumps back ten years from her opening scene.
Fully a third of the way through the book, Julie Patel re-enters and becomes a character, not just a name with a fact or two attached to it. She is part of a group protesting Storrow’s alleged political insensitivity. This has nothing to do with Georgia; rather, it’s about skin color and micro-aggressions in language. Thus, as Georgia attempts to break off her affair, she tells herself Storrow is now “some other girl’s problem.”
Barely a character, then dead
That Georgia’s affair becomes known to her friends, while Storrow is under professional siege, is a key to the tale, but not necessarily to the book’s locked mystery. Soon after the affair is exposed, a disappointed Charlie fantasizes about a relationship with Julie. Then Julie is dead, her neck neatly snapped. The three friends move into their 20s.
This is a promising first novel, a book first about uncertainty, but also about the difference between even bright students’ fantasies and “actual, multifarious reality,” as well as the odd, formative nature of friendships made on the threshold of adulthood. Most interestingly, it also dissects the obnoxiousness of aging, self-important people, leaving one to wonder whether Georgia, Charlie, and Alice haven’t left hints that one or more of them could also become repellant.
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