Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Net Present Value of Life by Michael Di Lauro

One of the joys of spending too much time online is “meeting” people like Michael Di Lauro. I happened upon his very first blog post, and got to be his first commenter (always fun!) At that time he had just written his first novel, and a very short time later it was picked up for publication. Knowing how difficult getting published can be, I must say I was vicariously overjoyed at this, and offered to review the book when it came out. So here I am, with the added buzz of knowing that the author may actually read this review!

The interesting thing about The Net Present Value of Life is that it is driven not by a story, but by an idea--or rather, a set of ideas. That’s nothing new, of course, but I don't come across such novels often, and it's quite a daring move (I thought) for a first novel. The plot is quickly summarized: a jaded 40-something financial analyst, Charles, meets an elderly British lady, Fay, and is challenged by her to rethink all of his values. Consumed by his career and his supposed need for financial security, he has suppressed the creativity and joy of his younger days and is miserable and hostile. His meetings with Fay open up a new life based on meaning rather than money.

As I read this novel I was often struck by how it captured the Zeitgeist of my own generation (I’m 50) and how it echoed many themes that I’ve come across in my own reading. Many of us are now questioning the American Dream model that has dominated the Western economies for the last 70 years or so: work hard at school, get a good job, buy a nice house and retire near a golf course. Writers like Daniel Pink and Barbara Sher are making a living by urging us towards creativity and passion, Christians are signing up in droves for Crown Financial courses based on swapping debt-fuelled “prosperity” for fewer possessions, financial freedom and a meaningful life, and our children… well, who knows what they’ll do, but I don’t think the nine-to-five job will feature prominently. So if all of this interests you, you’ll find The Net Present Value of Life a thought-provoking read. If these ideas are new to you, you’ll find a few avenues for further exploration in the dialogues, and a few more listed in the afterword.

It’s an easy, dialogue-based read, and another interesting thing that struck me is that it might appeal to MEN. You may well be aware of the “fiction gap” theory, the perplexing fact that most fiction is read by women, while men seem to go for business and self-help titles. I’m sure I’ll hear from some male commenters that they read fiction ALL THE TIME and I’m not up to date on research into reading trends, but I think I just finally understood the massive popularity of Dan Brown, whose books similarly fictionalize ideas rather than narrate fictional events.

So I’m thinking that Michael Di Lauro may have hit on a promising vein here. My advice, from a reader’s viewpoint (and since I’m hoping Michael will read this I’ll address it straight to him) is: find more dynamic settings for the next couple of novels, and work out some meaty plots on which to hang your ideas. Build on your fluency with dialogue and inner character development, as the ability to get complex ideas across in a way anyone can understand is a great gift. A companion website that discusses the ideas in depth and provides links for further reading would be an excellent idea and would help to increase your fan base. I offer British nonfiction author Anthony Peake's site and blog as an example (I know Tony personally, and although I'd debate his ideas I admire the way he's gone about communicating them.)

So I’m putting this one in the “interesting” and “intriguing” categories for readers who like to think, and will be watching Michael’s career with fascination. I hope he takes his own advice and sticks to the creative path.

1 comment:

rlabey said...
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