Steven Lee Gilbert writes with conviction and purpose in his debut novel, A Lovely, Indecent Departure, but he has everything all wrong. The novel plods along slowly and tediously, and Gilbert's decision not to let the reader into the minds of his characters makes the story lifeless as well. Because the reader doesn't know what's going on inside their heads, the characters are more like empty vessels than human beings, awaiting direction from the author. When Gilbert makes them do something shocking, I don't feel he's earned it, because the plot leading up to that moment gives no indication the character was capable of such action. The novel wants to be morally ambiguous as well, but even here it fails. In order to achieve this goal would have required greater insight into the situation and into the motivations of its characters. Failing to provide such information, the novel ends up being morally disturbing instead.
The plot seems intriguing at first. Anna, a divorced mother, decides to abduct her son, Oliver, who was given custody to his father, Evan. Anna gets to see Oliver on weekends, but Evan does everything he can to ensure she seems him for as little time as possible. On this particularly weekend, Evan demands that Anna bring Oliver back four hours earlier than she has him for, but Anna has other plans.
From some early scenes we see that Evan can be a jerk, especially towards Anna. However, there is no indication that he is a bad father. He is strict, sure, but strictness is not bad parenting - quite the opposite, in fact. I only point this out because it helps to determine why Anna makes the decision to abduct her son. If Gilbert is able to establish that the court's decision to leave Oliver in his father's custody is a bad one, because Evan abuses his son, for example, then I could possibly sympathize with Anna. Otherwise, if Evan is nothing more than a jerk, Anna's decision suggests a mental illness, perhaps even idiocy. In fact, there's no indication she has thought through her plans very far, though she has help from her family in Italy. That she tries to live a normal life in Italy under her Italian family's surname (not even changing her first name) suggests she wants to be caught. She's too obvious. To add to that, we find that Oliver is clearly not happy, though Gilbert avoids suggesting that it is because he is not with his father, and the principal of his school takes notice. I don't have any sympathy for a woman who would do this to her child.
However, it's clear that we're supposed to cheer for Anna and view Evan as the bad guy. The problem is, Gilbert fails to provide any proof that Evan is a bad guy until some plot developments towards the end that are not earned. That the sheriff and a private investigator suspect Evan is to blame for his wife's actions makes the reader more sympathetic to him. These characters seem convinced that Evan is a monster, but nothing convincing suggests that he is. The mistake Gilbert makes is in not revealing anything monstrous Evan has done during his marriage to Anna. The fact that the court awards him custody suggests he is more capable of raising his son than she is.
In an article on his blog, Gilbert asserts that what happens prior to the divorce is irrelevant. This is wrong. In order to sympathize with Anna, the reader needs to know why we should believe Evan is a monster. Simply stating that he is a monster is not enough. We need reasons. Without key background information, the novel exists in a void, as though the characters began their life only at the start of the novel, and not before. When Evan makes some drastic decisions at the end, there is nothing to suggest he was moving in that direction. The author told him to act and he did. He did not act on his own. In this case, I guess it really doesn't matter what happened before the divorce. The actions of the characters are predetermined and require no development up to that moment. It's as though we're reading a story about robots and not people with feelings, opinions, and life.
Gilbert borrows his writing style heavily from Cormac McCarthy. This is true in the sentence structure, but he lacks the poetry of McCarthy's language. Gilbert's sentences don't flow with the same life as McCarthy's. Where McCarthy can describe a character drinking a cold beer in such a way that the reader can taste the beer, Gilbert comes off as repetitive and long-winded, particularly with his use of the word "and" to connect several mundane actions. More obviously borrowed is the dialogue, written without quotation marks. However, the dialogue has the same problems as the rest of the writing.
Gilbert overuses some elements of dialogue that can be effective in small doses. For one, there are far too many occasions when one character does not respond to another. Here is a common sentence in the novel: "Evan didn't answer." This kind of non-response is supposed to suggest something has been said that Evan does not like, or that he has something to hide. However, it seems more likely that the characters have nothing going on in their heads. This is clear in some of the dialogue. Too often a character asks for clarification about the reference of a pronoun that is painfully obvious. Here's an example of what I mean:
"Long enough that she wouldn't call to tell me where she stole off with her son.
Did you know the boy?
That the boy in this dialogue exchange refers to her son is so obvious there's no need to clarify. It's an insult to the reader's intelligence, and it also makes the characters seem dimwitted. This kind of exchange is common throughout the book, and it nearly had me pulling out my hair. I also don't understand the need for lengthy dialogue exchanges in Italian. I mean, I get it. Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway have characters who speak Spanish here and there, but it's usually just a brief sentence and it's generally translated by the narrator. There are frustrating moments where two or more characters carry on a somewhat lengthy conversation entirely in Italian. If what these characters have to say is not important enough to write in English, it should have been scrapped.
I haven't even mentioned the third POV character, after Anna and Evan, and that is Sheriff Monroe. Monroe is not essential to the story. He does not help solve the case, and when he does any investigating, he comes up empty-handed. Monroe's scenes add nothing of interest. I did not care about his romance with the local librarian, or the vague criticisms of his police department, or his troubles with his ailing father, or his scenes with his teenage daughter. Gilbert could have profited immensely from removing Monroe from the story and instead focusing on developing Anna and Evan and their situation so the reader could actually care about the outcome of the story.