While coming of age stories set among wealthy Ivy Leaguers typically take a decidedly WASPy bent, STAINER has tackled that genre with a twist. The novel draws us into the trials and tribulations of Columbia student Ben Steiner, whose life in 1970s New York seems to revolve around Judaism, girls, and the pursuit of “cool.” Despite the privileged milieu and references to observant Judaism, the story of a naive young person hungry for new experiences is universal, and Ben’s stumbles will be strikingly familiar to readers.
Ben’s yearning to break free from the confines of his “good Jewish boy” life is palpable throughout the book, and it is no surprise that the boundary-pushing P.T. Deighland holds such appeal. Rakish P.T. embodies a familiar trope, with his laconic wit, upper-class entitlement, and easy access to drugs and beautiful women. While readers can identify P.T. as repulsive from his first appearance (one savvy character later refers to P.T. as “sociopathic”), it also makes sense that innocent Ben would find P.T. entrancing.
STAINER takes a dim view of youthful drug use, and we are meant to believe that Ben’s encounters with P.T. and the aggressive lingerie model Anthea Montague are horribly debauched. On the whole, however, the book’s descriptions of youthful indiscretions are rather tame and serve primarily to illustrate that Ben’s new friends are bad news. The plot also wraps up too quickly after Ben’s season of sketchy decisions comes to a head, leaving readers wishing they knew more about how he fares on the other side. An Epilogue gives some resolution, but not quite enough.
The author has a gift for capturing characters’ quirks of speech, developing vivid personalities. While the female characters in too many male-centered coming of age stories tend to be flat mirrors for male characters’ issues, many of the women in STAINER are fully realized and intriguing. This is especially true of the primary love interest, Rebecca, who is pleasant but never bland. Althea, unfortunately, veers into a villainous caricature by the end, but her antics are still fascinating. The book also offers a detailed geography of the characters’ New York, creating a colorful backdrop for all of Ben’s stumbles and triumphs.
A clever and appealing tale of a well-meaning but flawed young man’s faltering steps toward adulthood, STAINER is not your average coming of age tale.
~Jennifer Dixon for IndieReader