The Swallows, Lisa Lutz’s latest novel, is one of the most provocative, astute, and indelible books to come along in ages. While it is unlike anything she has written before, The Swallows continues Lutz’s tradition of crafting extremely complex characters, throwing them into a fascinating plot situation, and sprinkling it all with a bit of irreverent wit.
To “go for the jugular” is a common enough idiom meaning to defeat someone by systematically attacking the point at which they are most vulnerable. This would be a very apt description of the onslaught waged by the girls at Stonebridge Academy against the toxic masculinity which permeates that institution – except to be frank, these girls are aiming quite a bit lower.
In a nut…shell, that is the basic, underlying plot of The Swallows. However, in the skilled hands of Lisa Lutz, this book that reads like a thriller is also a not-so-subtle condemnation of society’s ills. It is a shrewd observation of how genders interact across age-ranges within a volatile environment – yet by extrapolation, it documents the overall war of the sexes in a way readers are not often privy to.
As the novel opens, Alex Witt begins a new teaching gig at Stonebridge Academy, an elite New England prep school. Ms. Witt is running from a controversial past and left her previous teaching assignment under a shroud of secrecy. Surprised to discover that her schedule includes some creative writing courses, Ms. Witt quickly develops an anonymous questionnaire designed to learn more about her students likes and dislikes. When a disturbing pattern begins to emerge from their answers, Ms. Witt feels compelled to investigate further.
For some reason, many of the girls are answering the question “What do you hate?” by mentioning “the Darkroom.” This begins reader’s decent into shadowy corridors – both real and virtual – where scandal resides. As readers learn what the Darkroom is, they witness a rebellion taking shape in the background. A small group of girls, led by Gemma Russo, form a bond and vow to fight back against this particularly vicious style of objectification.
Divided up into four parts: “In the Dark,” “Allies,” “The Army,” and “The War,” Lisa Lutz uses four very distinct points of view to tell this story: two teachers (one female and one male) who provide the “adult” perspective on things; and two students (also, one female and one male) who are more intimately aware of what is happening with the student body. As these characters interact, the truth begins to boil, creating an incendiary situation designed to “blow’ the lid off the whole enterprise.
The Swallows is an intelligent novel that will appeal to a wide-variety of readers. Thriller fans will be hooked, especially in the second half of the novel as they race towards the ultimate confrontation; while readers who enjoy books with academic settings (like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History) won’t be able to resist the lure of Stonebridge Academy. Mature fans of the young adult and new adult trends should find this thought provoking read stimulating and extremely relevant to their daily lives. There is one element that mystery fans are sure to ponder as it recurs throughout the novel and with that Lisa Lutz excels at a nice slight-of-hand. When that revelation is made late in the book, readers will wonder how they failed to see what was right in front of them the entire time.
In the end, The Swallows is an extremely satisfying reading experience that is sure to generate conversation and maybe even a bit of controversy. As a society, we find looking at our flaws to be difficult, often painful, but sometimes fiction can shine a spotlight in ways that make examination easier – but then it is our job to facilitate change.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was obtained at ALA. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.