Disclaimer: I was sent an advance reader copy and paid to write the following review, which reflects my honest, expert opinion and desire to provide quality evaluation for book lovers. I am not affiliated in any way with this book’s sales.
What do you get when you mix a literature-loving protagonist possessing secret powers with looming fate, a recurring penchant for death, and quiet desire for love?
William West’s Evolution of a Young Man in Love answers that question with an introspective and not-as-melancholic-as-one-might-expect debut novel. Set primarily in Austin, Houston, and Galveston, West weaves threads of change and growth through one young man’s coming-of age story. Sounds sweet, right? Well, except for the serial killer who’s framing his best friend and that morbid prophecy permeating their lives.
Evolution of a Young Man in Love moves between Joseph Hawking’s memories, internal reveries, and present experiences. A high school English teacher, he’s ensnared in the subject of evolution quite literally (parents have complained about his teaching of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species); he’s also experiencing a personal period of introspective change following his father’s death.
“Funny how we seem to evolve in periods of growth and remembrances rather than one fluid transformation.” ~ from Evolution of a Young Man in Love , p. 92
As his special powers struggle to reveal themselves, Joseph fights dwelling in memories, especially those of his role in his girlfriend’s violent, unexpected death. Joseph realizes he must choose between old patterns, crippling blame, and false beliefs and the possibilities, expanding horizons, and blossoming romance in his future. An unexpected encounter resolves an old mystery—who left those cryptic notes about his secret abilities?—and brings him to the brink of lasting love.
Novels set in my home state and city fill me with special pleasure, and West’s physical descriptions made this Texas girl proud. He takes us to well-known Austin haunts (The Tavern, Windsor Park, and Stephen F. Austin High School, to name a few) and lavishly evokes Texas’ coast. He’s at his best when drawing scenes, whether physical or interpersonal.
“At the seawall, the sound of water became overpowering, water wrinkling its way toward land, water rising out of water, foamgurfling, landswallowing, laughbubbling waves of water.” ~ from Evolution of a Young Man in Love, p. 162
West’s keen eye is one of the things I enjoyed most about Evolution. He uses small details to bring action vividly into focus, and that meticulous attention is perhaps due to his past background in homicide investigation. After all, the first few pages conjure murder in all its gruesome aftermath through the meanderings of a solitary fly. Later, another body—this one “puffy white and slick as honeydew”—bobs in the ocean. Those images have stayed with me (perhaps longer than I might like).
Murder binds Joseph to his closest friend, David Snow, but it isn’t their only lasting connection. Exploring those bonds drives Evolution. West could’ve easily ramped up the supernatural, but he chose to quietly reveal and develop Joseph’s special powers across several incidents. No costumed forces of good and evil dramatically battling it out—even the revelation of and final conflict with the Bedroom Killer isn’t the expected climactic focus. I gasped; this wasn’t the end of the book? I checked my copy; too many pages remained, so something else awaited after that confrontational scene. Indeed, what West had in store for Joseph and David was so much more than solving the serial killer whodunit.
“Since life is not linear, but evolves from many different experiences and histories in each of us, I tried to create several story lines with the intent to give a whole picture of Joseph as he searches through the loves and tragedies in his life to find a purpose for his extraordinary evolution in the face of his own predicted death.” ~ author William West on Evolution of a Young Man in Love
If I have a criticism, it’s that Evolution’s surprises should’ve played out a bit more slowly. The cast of characters was rich enough but I wanted to know them more. Transitions between past and present could be jarring; while some segments fulfilled my desire for drawn-out details (in “Memory of 22,” for example, West takes his time evoking emotions and events surrounding David and Carolyn’s father’s death and the following fateful palm-reading session involving all three friends) but segments surrounding the Bedroom Killer investigation felt rushed. Confession: I am a sucker for procedural crime and would’ve also liked more involving Adam Hargarty, the fictional shooter whose murderous spree invokes The University of Texas’ infamous Tower rampage (and who figures more prominently in Evolution than one might at first suspect).
Evolution of a Young Man in Love, though relatively slim at 207 pages, is not necessarily a quick read. West’s ambitious structure precludes proceeding on auto pilot. While I respect an author who’s willing to take risks, I confess that an early conversation between Joseph and God, complete with Neil Gaiman-ish overtones, gave me some pause. West uses poetry to advance plot and reveal Joseph’s inner thoughts and, though I enjoy it, not everyone finds poetry accessible. Verse-heavy segments might put off some readers, especially those expecting a more traditional format. How many murder mysteries bust out some referentially Longfellow-ish verse for four and a half pages?
This isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill murder mystery—or love story or superhero journey.
Nope; if you’re looking for a quick, formulaic read that doesn’t ask you to, say, consider wavelength energy, T.S. Eliot, existence of fate, and religion’s views on human development, then don’t pick up William West’s Evolution of a Young Man in Love. If, however, you are willing to step into a preternaturally thoughtful young man’s internal world, one populated with everyday experiences involving morbid shadows, extrasensory relationships, and murky secrets from the past, then allow me to introduce you to Joseph Hawking and friends.
I adore books, and 2018 has had a reading focus. Reviewing Evolution of a Young Man in Love brought my total to 53 books in 38 weeks. So am I done with this challenge? Nah. I’ll continue to record and review to see just how many books I finish in 52 weeks.
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