First-time author MacKenzie Bezos tries something tricky and not entirely successful with her debut novel, The Testing Of Luther Albright: She creates a narrator so maddeningly meticulous and repressed that readers won't know whether to root for him or throw the book against a wall in frustration. In the early '80s, as the novel begins, Luther Albright works for the state of California, designing dams. His wife Liz is a stay-at-home mom, but their only son, Elliot, is about to turn 16, and he needs his folks less and less. Luther doesn't understand why this nags at Liz, so she begins to drift away as well, and Luther tries to win his family back by showering them with gifts and performing little home repairs. His efforts are haunted by the novel's opening line: "The year I lost my wife and son, my son performed nine separate tests of my character."
Bezos spreads those nine tests through eight chapters, and this simple structure keeps her narrative in motion in spite of the protagonist's infuriating single-mindedness. As the story presses on, it also become clear that Luther's problems aren't entirely his fault—a series of coincidences and calamities are working against him. Bezos holds to a too-rigid psychological insight in The Testing Of Luther Albright—essentially, "kids need to be yelled at in order to feel loved"—but she has a rich, stirring understanding of how it feels to react to the natural changes of life with emotional paralysis. Luther reads every small gesture, from his son's solitary weekend plans to his wife circling want ads in the newspaper, as elements in some larger conspiracy that he can't fully trace. So he focuses on the nuances, like how to determine the source of a plumbing leak.
Bezos' hero never exactly becomes loveable, but she articulates his problem so precisely—and the milieu of the California suburbs in the New Wave era so vividly—that The Testing Of Luther Albright grows increasingly tense and emotionally draining. Does Luther saying "I lost my wife and son" mean that he never gets them back? As Bezos builds to a conclusion that resolves all the book's mysteries, she breaks for a flash-forward that explains what will happen to her characters in the decade after this story ends, and makes the meaning of "lost" devastatingly plain.