Can a thriller also be a feminist social critique? Lisa Lutz gives it a try in ‘The Swallows’

Rebekah Frumkin

THE WASHINGTON POST – With her new novel, Lisa Lutz, best known for the Spellman Files whodunit series, reaches for more.

The Swallows wants to be both John le Carré and Doris Lessing. It’s an odd combination that perhaps not surprisingly doesn’t quite come together.

As The Swallows opens, we are introduced to Alex Witt, a slacker instructor at Stonebridge, a Vermont boarding school whose headmaster happens to be friends with Alex’s father.

Alex is coming to Stonebridge in “disgrace”: We learn that a lovelorn student at her last school filmed her drunkenly getting into an intimate relationship with a consenting adult and then distributed the video as a form of revenge (The school later claimed Alex had encouraged the affections of the boy, which seems like a reach. Wouldn’t a prep school be more concerned with burying the issue than manufacturing blame?).

Why we learn this 159 pages in is just as mystifying as why it’s treated as a high-profile secret and a source of deep shame – for a long time, we suspect Alex has a ruinous, checkered past that she simply doesn’t have.

There are other problems percolating at Stonebridge: A particularly repulsive group of boys at the school use an encrypted and highly misogynistic website called the Darkroom, where they post revealing photos of Stonebridge girls and rate intimate encounters.

When Alex assigns an anonymous questionnaire in her creative writing class, asking, among other questions – “What do you love?” and “What do you hate?” – the girls respond that they hate the Darkroom, and the boys say they love it.

After one of her classmates is humiliated by the circulation of a photo, Gemma Russo, who is frequently described by adults as a rebel and whose dyed hair and punk outfits should make that obvious to even the most clueless of readers, becomes the ringleader of a group of girls determined to take down the Darkroom.

The polyphonic narrative that ensues has the pacing and urgency of a spy thriller but the middling stakes of a book about a group of privileged kids sending each other cryptic texts.

By the time the stakes do achieve life-or-death heights, the novel has forced itself into an awkward stance of violence and suspense that doesn’t entirely fit with its crumpled class notes and teenage self-importance.

In the #MeToo era, the intent of The Swallows is admirable: Trace toxic masculinity back to its roots, the peacocking years of early adolescence, and empower a group of young women to shatter it.

And Lutz is mordant in her descriptions of “boys will be boys” sliminess – there’s a preppy villain, a smooth-talking manipulator, an unfunny class clown, and a teacher-cum-writer who enables them all (and whom Lutz expertly uses to skewer male novelists who can only write about their imagined prowess).

It’s in the machinations of the campus cold war itself – and in her clumsy homage to le Carré – that Lutz stumbles.

More than once in The Swallows, prep school kids sit next to each other and talk facing forward, “like spies”; whether Lutz intended to play this for laughs is up for debate.

The book is full of anonymous notes and secret meetings – some to exchange privileged information, some to preserve social standing, some a combination of both – that come across as comically self-serious.

This is not to say that misogyny in high school and the harassment of adolescent girls aren’t serious issues – rather, they are intersectional ones, and there is much to be said about power, privilege and cycles of abuse that is skimmed over in favour of spy-versus-spy skulduggery in The Swallows.

Where the novel truly succeeds is in its implication of adults in the nasty schemes of kids.

Lutz ingeniously employs a clueless guidance counselor named Martha Primm as a figurehead of deranged internalised misogyny and the systemic victim-blaming that has plagued institutions of higher learning across the country.

Trauma is personified in school librarian Claudine Shepherd, who was educated and abused at Stonebridge and carries on the school’s dark legacy with severe consequences.

Even Alex becomes too entangled in her students’ dealings and ends up suffering at the hands of one of the more calculating boys. No one is perfectly innocent in The Swallows, and no one should be.