By Emily Winslow (Delacorte Press, 2010)
For a while, I've been obsessed with what you could call the line of plausibility in fiction, and how it differs from the line of plausibility in nonfiction—or, for that matter, real life. There are coincidences that we accept in real life that we don't accept in fiction; somewhat contradictorily, there are also ways that we expect a fictional story to come together at the end in ways that we don't expect real stories to. And everyone's lines of plausibility are in different places, aren't they? One person's exasperation is another person's thrill.
My own lines of plausibility lie across the source of both my difficulty and my admiration for Emily Winslow's The Whole World. See, I'm a reader who, generally speaking, likes his plots messy; I like them to resemble what I see as the chaos of real life to the greatest extent possible. I like them to make just enough sense. But The Whole World is not like that. Like Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight, which The Whole World reminded me of in a few places, Winslow's novel is a puzzle, a machine, working at several levels, and the fun of the book—as with most mysteries—is in trying to figure out how it all fits together before the book tells you. That the pieces fit together so neatly is almost a little dissatisfying; it requires a certain tolerance for coincidence that I'm not sure I possess. One could say it makes too much sense. But it's also what makes the book so elegant, and ultimately so affecting.
Because The Whole World is a mystery, I will tell you only that the plot revolves around two American exchange students at Cambridge, Polly and Liv, who are friends and like the same young man, Nick, who, in turn, has confused feelings for both of them as well. The students have been working on a research project with an older professor, Gretchen, who has been looking into writing a biography of a famous writer to whom she is related. Then Nick disappears, drawing in the authorities. The plot's machinations are further complicated by Winslow's excellent decision to reveal the truth of what happened—to everyone involved—by switching viewpoints from Polly to Nick to Morris (the cop put on Nick's case) to Gretchen to Liv, each of whom are observant and unreliable in their own way. All these moving parts make for a really absorbing read; even when the plot occasionally crossed my own line of plausibility, I didn't really care all that much.
What has kept the book in my thoughts since I finished it, however, is not its formal complexity, but the prose it's written in—like Handler's book, revealing just enough to chill and compel through the final pages. The Whole World also takes up what for me was a surprising theme in a mystery: parenthood. Many of the parents in Winslow's book are, well, kind of bad. But just when you think that The Whole World is an extended riff on Philip Larkin's famous statement on how "they fuck you up, your mum and dad," along comes Morris, who takes fatherhood so seriously that it turns heroism into stupidity. It's my favorite moment in the book, and one that, as a father myself, I'll carry for a long time.