There's a kind of teacher that Robin Williams never plays. College campuses are full of them: gray-haired academics haunting the margins, place-holders in the classroom who don't inspire or offend. They aren't bad—they're merely competent, which is usually enough. In Susan Choi's moving new novel, A Person Of Interest, one of their number is forced to exceed expectations; he doesn't recite Latin or climb desks, but that's probably for the best.

A math instructor at a small Midwestern university, Professor Lee has made a career out of keeping his head down. But when a mail bomb kills one of his successful colleagues, Lee is noticed simply because he has an office next door. After the attack, he gets an anonymous letter reminding him of a time in his life he'd rather forget; to cover his embarrassment, he lies about the letter to the FBI. Unfortunately, the bombing is the latest in a series of attacks against high-profile intellectuals, and while Lee's middle-of-the-road status protects him from the "Brain Bomber," his obfuscation attracts the attention of the agents covering the case. Unable to justify his erratic behavior to the government or his co-workers, Lee attempts to uncover his connection with the bomber, and learn how the mistakes of his past might be affecting the present.

Advertisement

As a thriller, Person is never really convincing; the plot twists are more distracting than compelling, and the FBI agents who dog Lee don't rise above the level of authoritative ciphers. But Choi is less concerned with investigating an explosion than with detailing its aftershocks. In clear, compassionate language, she charts the wreckage of Lee's history: the failed marriages, the estranged daughter, the ruined friendships. Just as compassionately, she follows his attempts to understand his mistakes. Choi exposes the minor treacheries that can undermine a relationship without exaggerating their effects or underplaying their intentions. In the process, she presents a path to redemption all the more remarkable for its lack of obvious salvation. Some mistakes may never be forgiven, but there's a chance they can be lived with, and perhaps someday forgotten.