We all love a good thriller, but sometimes the rules and regulations of the genre can overwhelm. At the bone, these are stories of good and evil, the forces of right versus wrong engaged in a struggle until a grand, satisfying climax, where our heroes come out on top. In Lauren Sanders’s latest, The Book of Love and Hate (Akashic Books), the stakes are as high as in any thriller, and the characters — a murderous Mossad agent, an embezzling billionaire, rogue government agents — are all familiar types. But there’s not much that’s neat or tidy here: This is a book of murky morality and uncertain resolutions. Which is to say, a thriller of literary pedigree, unbound by convention.
Sanders’s heroine, Jennifer Baron, is a judgment-impaired alcoholic, a survivor of sexual abuse, born into a family as twisted as it is loaded. She’s a silver-spoon New York City kid who’s also a former Olympic speed skater whose bright moment at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics was shattered in a fall that left her in, well, a million little pieces. Her brother, even more damaged, is dead; her mother abandoned them as kids; and her billionaire father is missing somewhere in the shadows of Israel. Jen sets aside the family’s foundation that she’s been halfheartedly running and heads for the Promised Land, where her father isn’t the only one with secrets to hide.
This is Sanders’s third book. Her first — 2000’s Kamikaze Lust, a sex-drenched joyride — won a Lambda Literary Award, which honors the best of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender books. For Sanders, her sexuality — and that of her characters — is something that informs her storytelling. Her new book’s sex scenes are once again frequent and unsparing, and always pack an emotional punch.
As a young athlete, Jennifer Baron came under the sadistic mentoring of her coach, Tree. The sexual abuse that too often goes on between coach and aspiring Olympic athletes is an all-too-common horror that now frequently makes headlines, as in the current case of the decades-long alleged abuse of USA Gymnastics members by team doctor Larry Nassar. However, the genders of coach and athlete can provide an unexamined twist on these dangerous, abusive relationships.
“In the whole lesbian literature there’s so much about the whole ‘older woman/younger woman’ that is often not characterized as abuse — and sometimes very wrongly,” she says.
Sanders, a tattooed, longtime Brooklynite, was not an athlete herself while growing up on Long Island — “I was the furthest thing from an athlete. I was a pothead, actually” — though she’s an insightful voice when it comes to examining our not-always-consistent perceptions when it comes to gender. She notes that within heterosexual relationships, be it between an older male and younger female, or older woman and younger man, our culture has become more aware of the potential for damage inherent in this power dynamic. Yet in lesbian relationships, says Sanders, “with women, it’s astonishing to me how someone will say they’re involved in an abusive relationship and people just don’t believe it.”
Throughout the book, Sanders continues to challenge and probe those gender norms. Now estranged from her abusive coach, Jen is immersed in an even more potentially damaging romance — with a wayward Mossad agent named Gila, who was previously her father’s girlfriend. Among Gila’s many red-flag sadistic tendencies is her habit of leaving bottles of wine around the apartment when she leaves the alcoholic Jennifer alone at home.
Yet Gila may be Jen’s only way to discover the whereabouts of her father — who may or may not be alive, who may be living under deep cover in Israel, or who may have died with Gila at his side. Dead or alive, it’s his ghost that haunts each page of the book. It’s the story of a prodigal daddy’s girl desperate to find the truth about her father.
“I wanted this guy to be in the rankings of the biggest Wall Street criminals,” says Sanders. “It’s fascinating because there really aren’t that many of them. They find their way out of things. It goes under the table, proof you can’t come up with, people die unexpectedly. It’s really amazing how much it takes to convict somebody at this level. You really have to be like a Bernie Madoff kind of character.”
But before any courtroom showdowns or criminal convictions can transpire, first you must find these shady rich somebodies, and as Jen discovers, there are often strong forces interested in preventing that from happening, particularly inside Israel, which itself is a character in the book. The Israel here is not the ancient alleyways of Jerusalem or the Mediterranean club scenes of Tel Aviv; here is a country of shadows, windswept expanses, and empty rooms, beset by danger on all sides. Much as Jennifer Baron struggles for a sense of sober identity, so too does the setting. “You’re born into this volatile place,” says Sanders of Israelis. “How do you come to some sense of identity and stability?” (On Tuesday, Sanders is appearing at BRIC with author J.T. Rogers in a talk called “Tales From the Promised Land.”)
It’s a theme that is never resolved, nor should it be. If you’re seeking a cathartic resolution in the final pages, you might be disappointed — but you shouldn’t be surprised. Not when you’re talking about Israel and corrupt fortunes, and madness, obsession, and abuse. These are the themes of timeless fiction; we can work through them and seek something resembling sanity. Just don’t expect to find a safe, comforting space in the pages of Lauren Sanders’s discomforting and terrific book.