Eli Gottlieb is not a prolific writer. THE FACE THIEF is his third novel in approximately 14 years. But what he lacks in quantity is more than equalized by the quality of his work. His latest is one of those remarkable books that sneaks up on the reader, startles, and remains memorable long after the final paragraph is read.
THE FACE THIEF is told primarily from the viewpoints of three different people. The main protagonist, if there is one, would be Margot Lassiter. We meet Margot just as she is experiencing a debilitating…accident? incident?...that places her in jeopardy from a couple of different directions as her past actions catch up with her. The narrative then moves backward in time and introduces two other characters living on different coasts of the United States.
"[Gottlieb's] latest is one of those remarkable books that sneaks up on the reader, startles, and remains memorable long after the final paragraph is read."
One is Lawrence Billings, a successful New England motivational/instructional speaker on the downside of middle age whose shtick is interpreting facial expressions and body language for financial advantage. He meets a young woman at one of his seminars who retains him for private lessons and is slowly captivated by her. His attraction to her is balanced by the fact that he can “read” her, and the story is one that can only end in disaster for him. There is a neat twist here, of course --- actually a couple of them --- as Billings gets in trouble, but not for the reasons one might expect.
Some three months later, a newly-married education administrator named John Potash is awakened in his new northern California home by a telephone call inviting him to partake in a high-yield investment opportunity. The woman calling him promises a fast and rewarding return on his six-figure investment, cobbled together with contributions from his parents and his new wife. What he receives is, shall we say, something else. That result is more or less predictable, but it’s only the beginning of what is revealed.
Margot, as might be expected, is the common point of the difficulties that Billings and Potash experience. The subtle question raised here is to what degree the two gentlemen contribute to their own problems. At least Odysseus had the foresight to have himself tied to his ship’s mast when he sailed past the Sirens; Billings and Potash practically fall over themselves as they each cut loose. Gottlieb does a masterful job of showing rather than telling --- and he shows far more than what I have told you here --- as Billings, Potash and Margot fall back, regroup, and attempt to recover from the consequences of their individual actions.
The conclusion isn’t completely surprising, but it’s not exactly predictable either. Each of the parties succeeds somewhat in reaching their goal. It just isn’t entirely pretty. And there is some blowback on secondary characters. Matters aren’t resolved in such a neat manner, but this turn of events simply makes the book that much more believable. We all know people like them, to one degree or another, and Gottlieb brings them to life on the printed page.
While nominally exploring topics normally found in suspense and thriller novels, THE FACE THIEF concentrates more on a study of the human condition than a whodunit or whydunit ordinarily would. Though not entirely dark, it’s an occasionally grim cautionary tale, a morality play using the ebb and flow of male-female relationships as the basis of a modern parable, whose primary lessons are: Hang on to your heart, and watch your wallet. And vice versa.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 16, 2012