Obedience, by Will Lavender, is a fascinating but flawed novel. Not flawed like Strip Search, which I reviewed the other day; this novel is worth reading. But it’s flawed nevertheless. It shares with Strip Search the characteristic of a great premise that the author can’t quite deliver on.

Reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere have commented on the difficulty of suspending disbelief when faced with an implausible plot and implausible characters, but I didn’t have that particular problem. As an academic mystery with a title and plot based on Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment, there was plenty to hold my interest, and I was actually able to buy into Lavender’s peculiar world. But here’s how a Massachusetts reviewer named Winter began his review that you should read:

Great idea. Mediocre book. That’s all you need to know. 

Maybe that is all we need to know, but Winter goes on for eight more paragraphs anyway.

I will do likewise.

Well, maybe just four more.

The main characters are a group of college students in the fictional Winchester University. Although the students and their university are painted in fairly broad strokes, I found them plausible enough and wasn’t nearly as bothered by Lavender’s descriptions of them in “overwrought prose” as Winter was. I can’t comment on Winter’s analysis of the likely effect of reality TV on today’s college students, since I don’t know anything about the four shows he mentions. I do like Winter’s phrase that the three students are “less stable than Microsoft Windows,” but I don’t understand what’s wrong with that.

Most of the mainstream (professional) reviewers were positive about Obedience. Most of the Amazon (amateur) reviewers were quite negative. I’m not sure what to make of this split. My feeling is that the latter group wanted a real-life novel that could be believed on the face of it, whereas the professionals were willing to look for metaphor and even fantasy. If you can live with something less than realism in an apparently realistic story, give Obedience a try. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning