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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The debut psychological thriller from Sebastian Stuart is a breezy, page-turning read about a world-renowned author who's fallen on tough times -- his new novel is a critical and commercial failure; his loving, high-society wife has a tormenting secret; and his new assistant has a very dark and demented past. Fun, quick, and shocking.
Considering that it's a first novel by an unknown author, Sebastian Stuart's The Mentor has generated a surprising amount of prepublication publicity. Having now read the book, which is a shrewdly constructed, immensely readable account of madness and murder in the insular world of the New York literati, I can understand why.
Like innumerable novels before it, The Mentor focuses on the complex, ultimately tragic interactions of an adulterous triangle. The three points of the triangle are former bestselling novelist Charles Davis; his wife, Anne, an ambitious, overextended entrepreneur; and Emma Bowles, the mousy, unprepossessing office temp who enters the Davis household and brings catastrophic changes in her wake. But the real heart of this novel lies in Stuart's skillful delineation of the fears, frailties, and secrets that are hidden beneath the visible surface of his characters' lives.
For 25 years, Charles Davis has been an American literary icon. His first novel, Life and Liberty, brought him instant celebrity and has since achieved the status of a modern classic. In recent years, however, he has fallen on hard times. Both his sales and his critical standing have steadily declined. His latest novel, Corridors of Power, has just been released and is shaping up as a major disaster. Its publication is accompanied by savage, condescending reviews and the lowest paperback reprint sales of its author's career. In the face of all this, Charles is succumbing rapidly to bitterness, disappointment, and terror, and to the unstated belief that the things that have always set him apart -- "his talent, his nerve, his edge" -- have deserted him for good.
Anne Davis is the glamorous proprietor of a catalog sales outlet called Home, which offers high-priced home furnishings to an upscale, trend-conscious customer base. Beneath its glitzy facade, Home is struggling for financial survival, and Anne is struggling along with it. Desperate to keep her company afloat, she allows herself to be seduced by a lecherous financier and ends up pregnant. As the novel opens, she is attempting to deal with several simultaneous crises: her pregnancy, her business difficulties, and her husband's deepening depression. In partial response to the latter problem, she hires Emma Bowles -- a drab, efficient secretarial assistant -- to help bring order to Charles's increasingly chaotic life.
Emma, on the surface, is quiet, colorless, and reliable. Beneath that surface, she is someone else entirely: a delicately balanced young woman with a long, painful history of mental and physical abuse, a history that climaxed in an act of matricide that kept her incarcerated in a Pennsylvania mental institution for many years. She is also a gifted writer and has transformed her violent past into a powerful, autobiographical novel-in-progress entitled The Sky is Falling. Her manuscript, unfortunately for her, comes to the attention of her latest employer, Charles Davis, who, in spite of his own creative difficulties, knows a good novel when he sees one.
From this point forward, The Mentor tells the story of Charles Davis and his developing obsession, an obsession that begins with Emma herself and ultimately extends to her book. Starting as a distant, authoritarian presence, he eventually becomes both her mentor and her lover, encouraging her writing and forcing her to see her novel through to completion. Throughout this process, Stuart skillfully traces the evolution of Charles Davis's gradual derangement, which culminates in his belief that Emma and her novel might just be his ticket back to the big time.
The Mentor works on a number of levels: as a novel of character; as a furiously paced novel of suspense; as an authoritative portrait of the closed society of Manhattan's cultural elite; as a portrait of mental illness, seen from the inside. Two deeply damaged figures dominate the landscape of this book. One is Emma Bowles, who seems fated to exchange one form of victimhood for another, and whose struggle to transcend her personal circumstances is both noble and tragic. The other, of course, is Charles Davis, a fallen artist who can no longer create, and who is willing to settle for the trappings of a spurious, unearned success. These two, supported by a host of vividly created secondary characters and a meticulously detailed urban backdrop, give The Mentor an uncommon degree of depth and substance and call to mind the early work of another New York City novelist, Ira Levin. Sebastian Stuart knows exactly what he's doing. He has created a fresh, compelling first novel that should have a good many readers, myself included, lining up for his second.