“Stay kind, kid. No one will see it coming.”
A review of How Lucky by Will Leitch
What is loneliness? Is it being alone or feeling alone? What does it mean to be a loner? What is friendship? What does it mean to simply be kind? These are questions explored by Will Leitch’s light thriller How Lucky, the follow-up to his 2005 Young-Adult novel, Catch. While that earlier novel also has a young man at its center, that’s where the similarities end. How Lucky allows the reader inside the mind of our lead character, Daniel, with a self-deprecating, funny, and unique voice. It follows a small but significant event in Daniel’s life. One that changes the lives of almost everyone around him.
How Lucky opens with Daniel explaining how his life is not a thriller. My guess is this is a cheeky shot at those in the publishing world who cannot abide a suspense novel that isn’t a thriller. Not everything has to be Gone Girl and the like. Not that there’s anything wrong with Gillian Flynn’s novel. In fact, it has one of the most incredible pieces of writing I’ve ever read (the “Cool Girl” section). However, Leitch isn’t trying to be Flynn. And that’s a good thing.
There isn’t a master plan by a hyper-intelligent antagonist. There isn’t a larger-than-life hero protagonist either. There are just people living their lives and one of them, the one who’s telling us the story, sees something.
The setting is Athens, Georgia, near the campus of the University of Georgia. Daniel is not unlike the many young professionals who flock to college towns. He has a decent job that maximizes his skill set, a best friend who’s with him through thick and thin, and others in his life like his overprotective nurse, Marjani. Daniel just happens to be confined to a wheelchair with a debilitating disease. Through happenstance, he witnesses the kidnapping of a Chinese college student, and because this is the 21st century, Daniel posts something about it on the internet community website, Reddit.
Daniel isn’t an intrepid hero; he’s just a guy who wants to do the next right thing. He and his friends try to contact the police about what he saw to little avail. It’s at this point, Daniel’s Reddit post is found by an unknown person who claims to have taken Ai-Chin. An ill-advised string of emails follows, and our story turns into a mystery. Is this the person who kidnapped Ai-Chin? Is she still alive? Should Daniel even be talking to this guy?
Leitch based the plot of Ai-Chin’s disappearance on the kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang, which occurred in Urbana, Illinois, in the summer of 2017. Leitch went to school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is from nearby Mattoon. Living in Champaign, I remember the story about the missing student and the community outcry. If you want to learn more about Zhang’s heartbreaking story, please watch the documentary Finding Yingying.
Throughout the novel, we learn about Athens, college football, and Daniel’s life before moving to Athens. More importantly, we learn about spinal muscular atrophy, how others view him, and how he views himself. Daniel is in his 20s and has all the desires of someone living in a college town. Daniel’s story is about accepting who he is and the others in his life who also treat him as a person and not someone to be pitied. I love that his best friend, Travis, interacts with Daniel as an equal in practically everything. He knows there are limitations, but effortlessly slides through or ignores them. Daniel may need help with so many things non-disabled people take for granted, but he isn’t helpless.
Leitch’s son’s best friend has spinal muscular atrophy, and he spoke with his parents and others to make sure his depiction of the disease was as accurate as possible. Daniel doesn’t let his disability define him. It’s a part of him, but it isn’t who he is. Daniel’s optimistic yet realistic voice takes the reader through his journey, and it is by far the best part of the writing. He talks about death, his disease, his best friend, and how he is seen and unseen.
Through Daniel, we get to see a sliver into the other side of loneliness and sadness. Jonathan, the person who Daniel starts communicating with because of the Reddit post, is just vague enough, especially at first, that the reader is unsure exactly who this person is. The plot swerves the reader to set up an encounter between Daniel and Jonathan that culminates in an exciting conclusion.
Daniel notwithstanding, the rest of the characters were not fleshed out beyond a character trait or two. Travis is a stoner who will never leave Daniel’s side. Daniel’s mother is defiant in the face of heartbreak. The police are jaded, tired, and uninterested in following actual leads. I’d have to review the book again, but I’m pretty sure Leitch doesn’t give a single character a last name aside from a police officer.
While we do get some insight into Jonathan through his Reddit exchanges with Daniel, I was hoping we’d get a POV chapter from Jonathan’s perspective just to see the other side of the coin regarding loneliness and being alone. There are hints of it, but I was looking for more.
Overall, How Lucky is the right combination of funny, suspenseful, and sweet. It’s a good book to kick off your summer beach reading. Personally, I’m looking forward to what Leitch does next with his fiction writing.