Solomon’s Puzzle by Loris Nebbia. Blessing House Press, 2010
As someone who reads a lot of self-published and boutique published fiction, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of editors––those who work for the author and those who work for the reader. Author-centric editors view their main goal as helping the author say what s/he wants to say with less concern about whether the reader will have problems sticking with the author while s/he spins her yarn. Reader-centric editors believe protecting the reader is their primary objective. Those editors scream when the author inserts conflicting or confusing details, wanders off the main path or gets bogged down. To that end, reader-centric editors are actually more helpful to authors than author-centric editors. They understand that the ship cannot sail unless the reader is on board.
How does this apply to Solomon’s Puzzle? The editorial services provided Loris Nebbia may have been helpful to her in ways the reader can’t see, but they failed to help her in ways that are clear just by reading some of the reviews posted on Goodreads and Amazon. While the majority of readers loved the book because of the characters and the story, a significant few felt it was too long, didn’t ring true in places and injected too much religion.
I disagree with the latter criticism. I thought Nebbia handled the religious aspects of the story skillfully without proselytising or inventing overnight conversions, but the other criticisms are on target.
The length of the book is a problem. It is 781 pages long or approximately 300,000 words––three times the length of most novels. What could have been cut? Nebbia could have eliminated small scenes and dialogue that are not essential to the story. She loves her characters––after all, she spent 12 years with them, and she couldn’t resist telling us about customers of Laurie’s quilting shop and sleep-overs at the MacBrides. That’s where the editor needed to jump in, but that kind of editing might have reduced the length by a few thousand words at best. The primary factor that contributes to the extraordinary length of Solomon’s Puzzle is author’s desire to bring the story to its conclusion between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Solomon’s Puzzle begins with the new school year. Ben, the story’s protagonist, is turning 16 and entering a new (private Christian) school because his family moved to Annapolis so his father Max could take up a post at the Naval Academy as a recruiter for the Marine Corps.
Max is bringing his family back to the scene of events that happened 16 years before––events he has been hiding from Ben since they involve questions of his parentage and the basis of Max’s anger and violence towards Ben.
To get the story to conclude at Christmas, Nebbia needs to prevent Ben from discovering the truth through out the entire fall. To accomplish this, she needs to invent events, such as having Ben’s friend Joe take a blood test that Ben was supposed to take, that prolong the uncovering. Several readers point to the failure of adults to tell Ben the truth as their main objection to the story and the rationale––they want him to discover it himself–is flimsy.
As a gesture of support for a local author I picked up (i.e., bought) Solomon’s Puzzle during a visit to Annapolis this spring. What goes around might come around. This is Blessing House Press’ first and I believe only publication.
Solomon’s Puzzle is a character-driven novel and that’s its strength. Nebbia’s characters are unique and well-drawn––no stereotypes, no stick figures. Readers might quarrel with motivation in the case of the the villains (Max and his mother Emma), but the author resists the temptation to have them “see the light” in the end. Bravo.
Nebbia’s world of Annapolis is also artfully drawn. We never stop to wonder about the settings. We see what she wants us to see.
The story draws the reader in. We care about Ben and the other characters in the book. We suffer at Ben’s beatings. We celebrate the MacBride family and at the goodness of most of the other characters. We are happy to see Donna and Patty change for the better, but like most readers, we just wish Nebbia hadn’t postponed the conclusion when we already knew the depth of Max’s depravity and had suffered Ben’s injuries enough.
We also wondered how a 16-year old could manage to be so healthy without eating food. In other words, repeating the same responses to events over and over weakens their impact.
According to her website, Nebbia is at work on a second novel. My guess is that the second one will show improvement in her mastery of story development without sacrificing her insights into human behavior and motivation. A reader-centric editor would be nice.