Review

A Person of Interest

by Susan Choi

Susan Choi's unique talent is to take fiction based loosely on
real people or real events and make her fictional portrayal of
those real-life counterparts simultaneously more provocative and,
somehow, even more true than the events that inspired them. In her
last novel, AMERICAN WOMAN, Choi reimagined the Patty Hearst
kidnapping case. Now, in A PERSON OF INTEREST, she conflates the
Unabomber murders with the Wen Ho Lee spy controversy, creating a
case that propels its protagonist into two most uncomfortable
situations --- becoming a reluctant object of notoriety and being
forced to confront his own sad past.

Lee is an aging professor of mathematics at an unnamed, distinctly
undistinguished Midwestern college. Frustrated with his department
chair's repeated entreaties for Lee to retire and make way for a
younger (untenured) professor with a lower salary, Lee also finds
himself becoming increasingly resentful of the department's new
"hotshot" professor. Hendley is a young, handsome, charismatic
computer scientist who practically has to turn students away from
office hours, while Lee can't entice any pupils to stop in for
course advice, let alone a friendly chat.

When Hendley is seriously wounded by a package bomb delivered to
his office while Lee is in the office right next door, Lee is
shocked by his own initial reaction to the blast: "Oh, good."
Coming face to face with his obvious antipathy toward Hendley, Lee
is also drawn back to reflect on his own history. In a field where
geniuses emerge only in their 20s, where 30-year-olds are over the
hill, Lee fought an uphill battle from the beginning. An immigrant
from an East Asian country, Lee came to the United States as a
young man; despite learning excellent English (so adeptly that he
can correct native speakers' grammar), he was always at a
disadvantage, starting graduate school at a large Midwestern
university at a much more advanced age than many of his hotshot
colleagues.

Lee's history of scholastic disappointment is also wrapped up in
his personal history. Twice divorced from two very different women
(about whom he has very different memories and responses), Lee is
now estranged from his only daughter. Living in a nearly empty
house (his second ex-wife took almost everything of value,
including most of the furniture and the paintings on the walls) in
a sterile suburb, suffering from chronic insomnia, Lee comes to
terms with his own irrelevance nearly every day of his life.

At first, Lee's propulsion into fame following Hendley's attack is
welcomed; he relishes his professorial appearance on national
television. But when his fame draws the attention of an unwelcome
figure from Lee's past, Lee retreats unhappily into his own
history. And when Lee's suspicious behavior draws the attention of
the FBI, who name him a "Person of Interest" in the bombing case,
he comes to reflect on the extent to which he has become an
outsider, not only in his country and community, but perhaps even
to himself.

A PERSON OF INTEREST is a suspenseful narrative, almost a literary
mystery novel. The identity of the anti-technology bomber, a bitter
individual who seeks to rid the world of war by killing and maiming
scientists who work on military-related projects, is cleverly
hinted at throughout the book and revealed only near the climactic
end.

Primarily, however, Choi's novel excels as a character study. She
thoroughly explores Lee's personality, from examining the
confident, self-assured young immigrant he was in his grad school
years to tracing the downtrodden, rigid, resentful old man he has
become in the intervening years. Thematically, she also raises
provocative questions about the tenuousness of outsiders'
acceptance into American society and the extent of suspicion that
has infiltrated the American psyche in recent years. Despite his
nearly colorless personality --- at least on the surface --- Lee
will, in fact, become a "person of interest" to any reader
fortunate enough to discover Choi's thought-provoking
page-turner.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 18, 2011

A Person of Interest
by Susan Choi

  • Publication Date: January 31, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670018465
  • ISBN-13: 9780670018468