Jonathan Evison's All About Lulu feels very much like the freshman effort that it is—gawky, dazzled by possibilities, not quite sure if it wants to join the rugby team or the drama club. It's as though Evison is exploring his options, experimenting with quirky plot points, dabbling in varied storytelling techniques, struggling in the end to assemble divergent threads into something meaningful and coherent.
If you can look past Lulu's attempts to impress (past the pierced eyebrow and temporary bisexuality, if you will), at the novel's core is a simple story of infatuation so familiar, frank, and well realized that reading it is occasionally uncomfortable: Lulu will resonate with anyone who's ever had an ill-advised crush that just wouldn't go away.
William Miller is the skinny vegetarian son of a widowed bodybuilder, a quiet boy whose world changes forever when he meets Lulu, his soon-to-be stepsister. His life-long passion for Lulu develops when the two are just children, and it's initially reciprocated—the two share an idyllic relationship, complete with a private language and innocent sexual exploration. All of this ends one summer when Lulu goes to cheerleading camp: The formerly loving, exuberant girl returns distant and strange, unwilling or unable to return to the Edenic state the children once shared.
As the two grow up, Lulu moves on, dating other men and eventually moving to Seattle. Will, meanwhile, takes philosophy classes at the community college, dreams of being a radio announcer, and finds himself instead opening a hot dog stand—and all the while, he never stops pining for Lulu. The narrative is interspersed with letters, journal entries, and academic essays documenting Will's struggle to understand both Lulu and the world around him.
Evison writes cleanly and unaffectedly about his narrator's frustrated, fruitless love, and as a chronicle of hopeless obsession, the book works very well. There's so much clutter, though—hot dogs and bodybuilders, Kierkegaard and Hume, and a fairly obvious Deep Dark Secret that the reader will figure out far before Will does. It's all very quirky, and—at least when a writer is as emotionally perceptive as Evison—all very unnecessary. Here's hoping that by his sophomore year, he's not trying so hard to impress.