Eli Gottlieb’s “The Face Thief”

Ever read a book whose first page details a woman’s brain-injuring fall down an immeasurable flight of stairs?

The answer is probably no. And I’ve probably managed to catch your attention.

In Gottlieb’s third novel, he’s built a rich and multilayered narrative suspension around the skill of face reading, a practice that, like divination in Harry Potter or the art of Tarot in The Night Circus, is given immediate and concrete legitimacy from page one. We as readers are expected to accept as truth that hooked noses belong to the proud and that every hairline tells its owner’s life story. Gottlieb makes it easy to afford this quasi-fantastical concession — and could no doubt read on our own faces the impatience to turn a page.

Overall, The Face Thief is just that: a page-turner. What distinguishes it from other page-turners is that you’re never quite sure whom you’re rooting for. And that’s kind of exhausting. Lawrence, for example, is an honest man seemingly taken for a ride by the calculating felon Margot; but just when you’ve spent all your defenses on Lawrence, just as you’ve sworn the unfairness of Margot tearing his marriage apart, it’s casually revealed to you how much of a two-way street infidelity is. Just as you pity John Potash for losing all his (and his new wife’s) money in a scam investment, you want to smack the rash stupidity of such a decision right out of him, too. And then, of course, there’s Margot herself: how many bad deeds can one person’s unfortunate past explain away? The moral ambiguity is itself what turns the pages. Will the next chapter be the one that tells us who our hero is? Will it at least tell us there’s no one to fit that bill?

Gottlieb’s narrative style is straightforward enough to pull us through the story while taking some lovely little linguistic detours. The scenic route includes some really splendid imagery, especially through the use of simile, which seems to be this author’s trademark:

Her perfume enclosed him like a room within a room.

She touched her hand to his and, instantly, like a startled reef fish, it swerved and shut closed on her fingers.

The envelope lay on the floor like a clue.

After these flourishes, we’re always set quickly back on the track of the plot’s erratic but sharply focused plot, barreling faster and faster toward — well, what exactly? That’s the snag. Plots intertwine and come to bear upon each other in ways as satisfying as a good sneeze, that’s for sure. And narrow, exciting escapes are made. And surprises land us in hospitals and alleyways. But the moral ambiguity surrounding every character has left us so jostled and jaded by the time we arrive at the climax, I wasn’t just questioning who to root for, but also whose outcome I’d even care about beyond the purposes of narrative closure. Either I read with too judgmental an eye upon these characters, or Gottlieb’s so slick that his plot has, like the perp, slipped right through my fingers.

But it’s a book whose characters I’d like to put in someone else’s hands for a while. I’d like to compare notes with other readers and ask them to gauge, in their equally humble opinions, how many momma’s boys outweigh their own bad choices, or how much face-reading talent can possibly account for or excuse the poor judgment of repeated mistakes. Maybe those readers, too, have the “bulbous nose of a pleasure-seeker” — and if so, then I’ll assure them either way of their need to read this book.

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