Julia Stilwell is trying to be a normal college freshman, but it's hard. She is still grieving the recent loss of her brother, whose death she blames in large part on herself. She also has had to give up her beloved trumpet, the instrument that used to define her --- and that she had always imagined would help define her future plans, too. Now she's just another college student, but her fears, regrets and insecurities also make her vulnerable to moments of sadness --- and perhaps more than that.
Julia begins dating another student, Marcus, with whom she seems to have a lot of interests in common. But she simultaneously finds herself drawing the attention of Sam, an older man (pushing 40, as it turns out) who works in the college's snack bar. Sam gives Julia the kind of undivided attention she thinks she needs, and he also seems to understand her experience of loss in a way no one else can. Soon they are dating, and Julia has to explain to Marcus why she can't be with him anymore.
"Dark, unsettling and perceptive, THE PRESERVATIONIST is a vivid exploration of different conceptions of love --- both true and truly twisted."
Sam is extremely solicitous toward Julia, and he seems to really care for her --- something that means even more to her as her parents pull away, unable to find room amid their own grief to care for their daughter. But there are questions about him as well, not to mention about Marcus, who seems in many ways unwilling to let Julia go so easily. Julia's dorm window is repeatedly found open with no explanation, and Sam's apartment window is shattered by a rock. Sam begins to receive mysteriously threatening phone calls that perhaps seem to be related to a string of rapes that have begun terrorizing the campus. Julia is not sure whom she can trust, or where she should turn when she's faced with a new crisis that she can't quite handle on her own.
THE PRESERVATIONIST is a cleverly plotted suspense novel; Justin Kramon constantly keeps readers guessing about the perpetrator and motivation behind the details he includes. Readers will find themselves analyzing even the most seemingly minor plot point, trying to discern the reason for its inclusion and its inevitable importance. Putting a vulnerable, somewhat unstable character like Julia at the center of a triangle that includes two potentially unhinged men is a great recipe for suspense.
But this is not just a compelling suspense novel. It's also a genuine exploration of these three damaged characters, of the elements in their individual pasts that may contribute to their behavior --- for better or for worse --- in the present. Delving into each character deeply, as Kramon does in chapters that alternate perspectives, pushes the book beyond mere thriller territory and toward something more sophisticated. Dark, unsettling and perceptive, THE PRESERVATIONIST is a vivid exploration of different conceptions of love --- both true and truly twisted.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 11, 2013