Those raised in the Roman Catholic faith of a couple of generations
or so ago are familiar with the concept of a guardian angel. I'm
not talking Curtis Silwa here; I'm talking about a spirit that was
supposed to cover your back, protect you from evil companions. I'm
not sure if they left us, or we left them, but they don't really
seem to be around anymore. Or maybe they are, and things would be
much worse if they weren't on the job. I shudder to think.
The Gardner family in Peter Abraham's latest thriller, THE TUTOR,
needs a guardian angel. Scott, the husband and father, is a partner
in a successful family insurance business but is constantly in his
brother's shadow (and in ways he doesn't even realize). Linda, the
wife and mother, is a successful career woman but is unable to
successfully balance the dual demands of job and family. Teenage
son Brandon is slipping loose of his moorings, all too ready to
blow off school and go drinking with his best bud. Zippy, the
family dog, is a total screw-up, the terror of the house and the
neighborhood. Ruby, the 11-year-old daughter, seems to pass
unnoticed in the midst of this maelstrom, content to do her work,
juggle the tennis classes, which she hates, with the archery
classes, which she loves, and retreat into the world of Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. And there you have the Gardners,
sort of an upper-class "Malcolm in the Middle," if you will.
It is into this that Julian Sawyer, THE TUTOR, interjects himself.
When Brandon's grades go south and his SAT scores aren't up to the
Ivy League standards to which his parents aspire, the Gardners turn
to a tutorial service, which, due to one of those last minute turns
of fate, sends Sawyer. Sawyer, almost from the minute he steps into
the Gardner house, seems to have all of the answers. Intelligent,
personable, well-read, he appears capable of solving each and all
of the Gardners' collective problems. Sawyer arguably saves Linda's
job with a suggestion; he helps Scott with his tennis game; he
relates quickly and easily with Brandon, showing him math tricks
that he can readily apply to textbook problems; he even brings the
hapless Zippy to heal. Sawyer is also a very good listener, and one
by one, the Gardners confide in him. As we watch Sawyer collect
these secrets and hold them close to his vest, we feel a vague
uneasiness, a feeling that is confirmed, quite dramatically, a
little less than a third of the way through THE TUTOR.
The Gardners' biggest problem is THE TUTOR; he is like the
vampyr of legend, come a-tapping on their window, and they
have bade him enter. Only Ruby, with her volume of Sherlock Holmes'
mysteries, suspects that something is not right. When she begins to
sense that Sawyer is going to turn the family's secrets against
them, she finds, quite quickly, that the member of the family most
in danger is herself.
Abrahams is at the top of his game here, infusing new life into a
theme that, while done before, has not heretofore been done quite
as well. His subtle sketching of each member of the Gardner family
is first rate; he reveals personality facets of each member of the
family so well that the depth of what he is doing --- basically
juggling five protagonists and never dropping a ball --- is not
immediately evident, making the incredibly difficult look easy. The
result is a thriller that is a notch or five above the rest, both
an entertainment and a cautionary tale. THE TUTOR will resonate,
and haunt, long after the final page is read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011