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A Person of Interest

A Person of Interest

3.0 2
by Susan Choi

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With its propulsive drive, vividly realized characters, and profound observations about soul and society, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Susan Choi's latest novel is as thrilling as it is lyrical, and confirms her place as one of the most important novelists chronicling the American experience. Intricately plotted and psychologically acute, A Person of Interest


With its propulsive drive, vividly realized characters, and profound observations about soul and society, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Susan Choi's latest novel is as thrilling as it is lyrical, and confirms her place as one of the most important novelists chronicling the American experience. Intricately plotted and psychologically acute, A Person of Interest exposes the fault lines of paranoia and dread that have fractured American life and asks how far one man must go to escape his regrets. Professor Lee, an Asian-born mathematician near retirement age would seem the last person to attract the attention of FBI agents. Yet after a colleague becomes the latest victim of a serial bomber, Lee must endure the undermining power of suspicion and face the ghosts of his past.

Editorial Reviews

Francine Prose
We read ‘A Person of Interest' for one of the best reasons to read any fiction: to transcend the limitations of our own lives, to find out what it's like to be someone else, to recognize unmistakable aspects of ourselves staring back at us from the portrait of a stranger.
The New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times
Choi deftly turns our gaze away from the obvious and takes us on a complicated and revealing journey into the alienated heart of modern American life ... Choi juggles suspense and psychological drama with an acrobatic dexterity.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Susan Choi ... is a writer with rare gifts. She has an eye for the telling details that reveal complicated, fully developed characters as well as an equally acute sensitivity for the times we live in.
Village Voice
Stunning . . . Choi's writing is elegant and surprisingly expansive.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Susan Choi returns with a straight-up thriller ... gripping, smart.
... cultural provocateur a la DeLillo, but with a keen sense of psychological nuance. . . . Choi has the all-too-rare talent of making the political feel unsettlingly personal.
Donna Seaman
Tenured math professor Lee has been teaching at a midwestern university for ages, yet he is utterly isolated within a web of anger and regret. When the popular young department star is gravely injured by a mail bomb, Lee is physically unharmed but psychically devastated. Assailed by painful memories of his affair with his only friend's wife and his own failed marriages, Lee, whose Asian backgroun is left deliberately vague, is completely undone when he becomes a person of interest to the FBI. How he handles the hostility of his colleagues and the invasion of his privacy by the government and the press is the engine that drives this intricately psychological novel's brainy suspense, while the slow unveiling of his past tells a staggering story of love betrayed. Choi follows the game plan of her lauded second novel, American Woman (2003), a takeoff on the Patty Hearst story, venturing here, albeit superficially, into Unabomber territory. Lee is unconvincing as a mathematician but mesmerizing in his ineptness and anguish. Subtle humor, emotional acuity, and breathtaking plot twists keep this tale of wounding secrets rolling as Choi's brilliant calculus of revelation and forgiveness delivers a triumphant conclusion.
O The Oprah Magazine
[An] eloquent, penetrating novel . . . Behind the headlines that trigger Choi's imagination, she sees intricate, difficult lives; she sees romance and error and dignity and pain—and finally, as with Lee, she sees the possibility for redemption.
Poets & Writers
No matter the year in which her novels are set, Choi's subject is contemporary American as much as it is America's past. The result is historical fiction with present-day relevance.
Masterful. . . . Choi seems to be working in a genre all her own: politically astute, historically based, and dramatically propulsive. [T]he suspense is solidly grounded in character, not ‘twists.' Its engine is the anxiety of a man whose sense of himself must be dismantled if he's going to survive, who only gets his life back after a maniac blows it up.
San Francisco Chronicle
Choi's writing probes the depths of Lee's consciousness, as well as the collective consciousness of his small town, and reveals things about Lee he has not yet bothered to articulate to himself. . . . What is compelling about Choi's characterizations is her sense of restraint . . . A Person of Interest is psychologically rich. The relationships fleshed out in Lee's life – especially his romance with his first wife, and the conflicts in and around their marriage – are moving and compelling. The novel is a testament to Choi's deft handling of her material. She reworks the classic detective novel as literary fiction, and shows how, given the right set of circumstances, any one of us could be labeled ‘a person of interest.'
Cleveland Plain-Dealer
Choi is wonderful at limning how strangeness roots in loneliness. . . . A Person of Interest brims with gifted writing, masterful observation, and propulsive plot. It sends Lee out to help solve the identity of the bomber, a role far more satisfactory than any lawsuit. In the barricaded past that the bombing stirs up, Lee finds a way to reassemble something essential, making for an unorthodox and deeply moving tale. The year is young, but A Person of Interest is the best new novel I've read in 2008.
Time Out New York
Engrossing, intricately plotted . . . . While A Person of Interest crackles with the sensationalism of the actual Unabomber events, it is anchored by its quiet portrait of a man in the melancholic twilight of his career, beset with regrets and professional jealousies.
Dallas Morning News
[T]errible honesty, surrounded by unanswered questions, is what makes Susan Choi's third novel so compelling.
New York Sun
Engrossing . . . masterful.
Bloomberg News
Beneath . . . less-than-cheery broad strokes Choi places a rich layer of well- chosen details.
Washington City Paper
If Henry James had lived in the age of pulp noirs, he might have wound up writing books a little like Susan Choi's third novel, A Person of Interest. . . . Choi's paragraphs are heavy, dense, carefully shaped mini-essays . . . her portrait of Lee's paranoia is . . . exacting and affecting.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Susan Choi's "A Person of Interest" has all the fine ingredients of a page-turner, but its true power lies in its subtle psychological depiction of alienation, guilt and redemption in these edgy times of mistrust and public paranoia. Choi, whose "American Woman" was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004, is a writer with rare gifts. She has an eye for the telling details that reveal complicated, fully developed characters as well as an equally acute sensitivity for the times we live in. "A Person of Interest" never loses its way, as Choi propels the story in a narrative style that is clear, confident and at times lyrical.
—Marx Swanholm,
The Oprah Magazine O
An explosive story of a mad bomber and a suspect scientist: In Choi's eloquent, penetrating novel, the two stories are brought together . . . Behind the headlines that trigger Choi's imagination, she sees intricate, difficult lives; she sees romance and error and dignity and pain--and finally, as with Lee, she sees the possibility for redemption.

The Village Voice
Stunning. . . A Person of Interest succeeds on so many levels: as character study, as literary thriller, but most of all, as an inquest into what constitutes identity.

Washington Post
Choi's work unfolds like a Dostoyevskian study of guilt and self-doubt, plumbing the depths of the paranoia that ensues when one's identity is threatened.

Kirkus Reviews
Choi (The Foreign Student, 1998, etc.) draws on the Unabomber case for her awkward third novel, about a campus bombing and a beleaguered Asian-American professor. Lee is an aging tenured math professor at an undistinguished state university in the Midwest. The adjoining office belongs to Rick Hendley, a much younger man with a much bigger reputation, a hotshot computer scientist loved by his students and envied by the unloved Lee. When a mail bomb explodes in Hendley's face, Lee feels a "terrible gladness." He does not visit Hendley in the hospital; when the man dies, he does not attend the campus memorial service. Petty and self-absorbed, Lee is no nicer now than he was all those years ago in grad school, when he was befriended by an evangelizing Christian, Lewis Gaither, and promptly stole his wife Aileen. Out of the blue, a letter arrives from Gaither, suggesting they resume their friendship. Could there be a connection between this letter and the bombing? An FBI agent seems to think so, and his suspicions are intensified when Lee lies to him about his relationship with Gaither. Choi alternates between the investigation and Lee's marriage to Aileen, doomed once Lee refused to show any interest in her baby John, fathered by Gaither, who later absconded with him. This can of worms acts as a severe distraction from Lee's current troubles, which multiply once the FBI declares him a person of interest (though not a suspect) and the media and neighbors harass him. (Echoes here of the Richard Jewell/1996 Atlanta Olympics story.) The abrupt introduction of the now adult John is a further distraction. The story does gain some momentum with Lee's cross-country dash to rendezvous with Gaither,who has now issued a Manifesto, like the Unabomber. But the climax, in the snowy Idaho woods, defies belief on several counts, among them Lee's last-minute makeover as a potential martyr. Lee's soul is too small to carry the novel, despite the author's astute observations.
Evan Hughes
Like her fictionalized retelling of the Patty Hearst story in 2004's American Woman, Susan Choi's A Person of Interest centers on the explosive and infamous entrance of terror and suspicion into unlikely quarters. A math professor at a midwestern state school -- referred to only by his last name, Lee -- is thrown from his desk by a mail bomb that kills the talented and charismatic computer scientist in the neighboring office. We know from the outset that Lee is innocent. The perpetrator, we learn much later, is in fact an intellectual anti-technology obsessive guilty of numerous bombings and reminiscent of the so-called Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

But when the FBI grows suspicious of Lee, the media and his colleagues follow suit, and their readiness to believe he is implicated falls over him like a heavy cloak. This piecemeal siege carries echoes of the Wen Ho Lee affair, for Choi's Lee, too, is foreign born and thus subject at times to special scrutiny. But Choi does not lean heavily on the issue, and this is not a typical immigrant novel. We hear little of Lee's homeland -- barbed-wire fences at the oceanfront, another bombing witnessed by Lee, a lack of personal freedom. Choi writes, "Lee really had closed the door not just on native country and language and culture but on kin, all of them, said good-bye to all that and stepped over a threshold of ocean to never look back."

Nor is the university bomber's preoccupation with the perils of technology a central concern; this is surprising, since Choi delved deeply and skillfully into the motives of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Hearst herself in American Woman. In A Person of Interest, the invasion of privacy and blame that Lee endures during the investigation forms the spine of the plot, setting in motion another storyline, one that begins long before the explosion. In each storyline it is the question of guilt and its many kinds and degrees that most interests Choi -- and her subtle exploration of the interplay between these narratives gives the book its considerable power. While Lee is in no way responsible for the killing, neither does he get away clean in the reckoning of the novel. A mysterious letter Lee receives just after the bombing says, "There's a reason my arrow grazed you," and we understand that the "arrow" symbolizes not only the act of violence but also the pointed finger of suspicion and shame. One can be targeted in multiple ways, and the impressions of others, mistaken or otherwise, can be wielded like a weapon.

The hunt for the "Brain Bomber" is carried out in parallel by Lee and the FBI, since Lee is led down the path of pursuit by that first elliptical letter and then another, both received from bogus return addresses. Choi excels here, in an intricately plotted book, at withholding information, creating a palpable curiosity that propels the story. Lee, an intelligent but brusque and sometimes boorish man, is very poor at sensing and managing the negative attention he draws on himself, and his obtuse missteps and foolish evasions of the FBI are not always credible. His erratic behavior, though, is largely driven by those letters, and we come to understand just what a Pandora's box they represent for Lee as Choi unfolds his fraught and half-buried past, littered with two failed marriages and a once-bitter rivalry over a woman and her child.

The novel's best sections are those flashbacks that chart this bitter love triangle and the lasting cross-currents of its consequences. The portrayals of the characters are believable and above all humane, and the push and pull of our genuine empathy ratchets up the dramatic stakes. As in American Woman, Choi writes with delicacy and care in descriptive passages, and even more so in charting the turns that take place in conversations both real and interior -- the changes of mind, the shift of alliances, the sleights of hand perpetrated against both self and other. Here Lee discusses the wishes of his dying ex-wife with her sister, Nora, who is crying:

"What do you think?" Lee asked, and he heard his voice betray the humble fright he thought he'd concealed in his chest. He wanted to cry, too, but he wasn't capable of such decorous tears.... "Why hasn't she mentioned this herself? This idea I should move to Rhode Island."

"Afraid of you," Nora said flatly. Then she added, "As usual."

The reversal was so abrupt it took Lee a beat to realize there had been no reversal at all, but a misprision of his and resulting interior tumult, which he was confident Nora's obtuseness had kept her from seeing.

Choi candidly conveys Lee's crude temper, his lack of self-control, and his cool manner of coping with strong emotion that borders on the cold. But ultimately we are allied with him, for Choi's complex portrait of this isolated, damaged man engenders an empathy for him -- sometimes tenuous but always unbroken -- that extends even to problems of his own making.

In the book's closing section, Choi regrettably spells out too clearly Lee's motives -- "...he'd needed [the bomber's] villainy to excuse his own ignoble acts," for example -- and the denouement is a little heavy with the freight of a drama imposed by the author. Nevertheless, A Person of Interest represents a significant achievement in a project of a very ambitious scope. The interweaving of complicated plots and relationships that could have registered as convoluted in less capable hands instead yields a narrative rich in suspense both public and private. Choi's elegant use of language is coupled with careful thematic echoes that freshly poses a piercing question: who among us is guilty, and who among us is not? --Evan Hughes

Evan Hughes has written for The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications.

From the Publisher
"A tour de force . . . universal and raw and irresistibly sympathetic."
-The Washington Post Book World

"With nuance, psychological acuity, and pitch-perfect writing, she tells the large-canvas story of paranoia in the age of terror and the smaller (but no less important) story of the cost of failed dreams and the damage we do to one another in the name of love."
-Los Angeles Times

"Read A Person of Interest for one of the best reasons to read any fiction: to transcend the limitations of our own lives, to find out what it's like to be someone else, to recognize unmistakable aspects of ourselves staring back at us from the portrait of a stranger."
-Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

It was only after Hendley was bombed that Lee was forced to admit to himself just how much he'd disliked him: a raw, never-mined vein of thought in an instant laid bare by the force of explosion. Of course, it was typical in his profession for diminishing elders to harbor ill-will toward their junior colleagues. But Lee, who had been tenured in his department for almost twenty-five years, felt that he was exempt from the obsolescence that infected most other professors his age. He was still capable of the harsh princeliness he'd possessed in his youth, although now he was half through his sixties, and his hair was all white. That old aristocratic hauteur would return suddenly, and his loose, dowdy trousers, always belted too high, would seem to sit on a younger man's waist. The liver spots that had come to his face would be bleached by the glare pouring forth from his eyes. His wasn't the kind of temperament spouse or child or friend had ever wanted to cleave to, but for his students it had the power to impress; like most of their peers, they found the notion of mentorship fusty. Unlike Lee in his own student days, they shunned the emeritus aura. They mostly wanted teachers who acted like pals—this was why they'd loved Hendley—but they didn't scorn Lee quite as much, he felt sure, as the other professors his age, the old men with their elbow-patched tweeds, and their stay-at-home wives who made cookies and tea for the very few students who still bothered to seek professorial counsel.

His dislike of Hendley was all the more painful to him for his ignorance of it. Had he known he might have forgiven himself his eager awkwardness in the face of Hendley's camaraderie, the oh yeses he would hear himself helplessly blurting whenever Hendley found him at their faculty coffee events, as if the past fifty years hadn't happened and he was fresh off the boat with ten phrases of English etched painstakingly in his mind. His dislike of Hendley might have prepared him somewhat, if not for what happened then at least for the dislike itself, the cold shock of his first, addled thought when he'd felt the vast fist of the detonation, like a bubble of force that had popped in his face. He'd felt his heart lurch, begin to flop in disorder and fear; he'd seen with his own eyes his wall of university-issue bookcases, the cheap metal kind with adjustable shelves, seem to ride the wall separating his office from Hendley's as if they were liquid, a wave. He had waited an endless instant, the eon between beats of his heart, for those bookcases so laden with waxy math texts to crash down in one motion and kill him, but they somehow had not. The explosion—he'd known right away it was a bomb; unlike almost all of his colleagues, he knew the feel of bombs intimately—had somehow not breached the thin wall through which, day after day, he'd heard Hendley's robust voice and his bleeping computer, and the strange gooselike yodel of Hendley's dial-up modem when it reached its objective. The explosion had not breached the wall, so that the work it had wrought on the far side was left for Lee to imagine, as he felt the force wash over him, felt his heart quail, and felt himself briefly thinking, Oh, good.

The bomb had arrived in a small, heavy cardboard box with the Sun Microsystems logo and address printed on it but afterwards it had been apparent to investigators, as it might have been to Hendley, had he examined the box with suspicion, that it had been reused—recycled, repurposed. Hendley had been alone in his office when he opened the box; Lee had known that Hendley was alone, would later realize that he had always been accurately and painfully aware of whether Hendley had student admirers in his office or not. The force of the explosion threw Lee from his chair, so that he found himself curled not quite under, but against the cold metal flank of his desk. For all that he'd lived through a violent and crude civil war, he'd never been that close to the heart, the hot core, of a bomb. He'd been in the vicinity of far more powerful explosives, such as left steaming holes in the ground—and of course, if he'd been as close, barely ten feet away, to any one of those bombs as he'd been to Hendley's, he would not have lived to feel Hendley's at all. But he had never been so close to a detonation, to that swift bloom of force, regardless of size, in his life.

After the explosion Lee lay curled on the floor of his office, his body pressed to his desk, his eyes closed; they weren't screwed shut in terror, just closed, as if he was taking a nap. The building's automatic sprinkler system had been activated by the blast, and now regular, faintly chemical rain sifted down upon Lee with an unending hiss. Lee did not register the disorder of noise taking form in the hallway: the running feet, toward and away; the first shattering scream. The ambulances arrived first, and then the police and the bomb squad; it was the bomb squad that found Lee, sitting up by that time, with his back to his desk, his legs straight out on the cold tile floor, his gaze riveted forward, but empty. Later, he would tell the police he had known, without doubt, that the bomb must have come in the mail. That rhythm, so deeply ingrained in Lee's being: the last mail of the day, the last light stretching shadows across the cold floor, the silence that grew more deep around him as the revelry in Hendley's office began. Loneliness, which Lee possessed in greater measure and finer grade than his colleagues—of that he was sure —made men more discerning; it made their nerves like antennae that longingly groped in the air. Lee had known the bomb had come in the mail because he had known that only an attack of mail-related scrupulosity would have kept Hendley in his office with the door shut on a spring day as warm and honey-scented as this day had been; Hendley was a lonely man too, in his way. Because the neighboring office was quiet, Lee knew Hendley must be alone; because Hendley was alone, he knew that Hendley was opening mail; because Hendley was opening mail, Lee knew it was that day's mail, freshly arrived. Then the bomb, and Lee's terrible gladness: that something was damaging Hendley, because Hendley made Lee feel even more obsolete and unloved. It had been the gross shock of realizing that he felt glad that had brought him to sitting, from being curled on the floor, and that had nailed his gaze emptily to the opposite wall. He was deep in disgusted reflection on his own pettiness when the bomb squad found him, but unsurprisingly they had assumed he was simply in shock.

Meet the Author

The daughter of a Korean father and a Russian-Jewish mother, Susan Choi was born in Indiana and raised in Texas. She holds an undergraduate degree from Yale and an M.F.A. from Cornell. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award. Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A Person of Interest is her third book.

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Person of Interest 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book moved to slow. The author bogged you down with too much details. I would not recommend this book.