Environmental preservation and economic development go head-to-head in this short, briskly paced novel. Evan Nellis is a greenhorn biologist, a young man, confronted with a host of complications in his life, including the recent death of his father. Working full-time, earning wages that won’t cover his expenses, and caring for his seemingly hypochondriac mother, Nellis strives to get ahead while wrestling with the mysterious circumstances surrounding his father’s death.
Nellis is the sole heir to a 500-acre coastal property near San Mateo, a rare, pristine wilderness that has been in the family for many generations. Nellis cherishes the property, was raised there, and learned to surf in the challenging waters of Solitude Beach. But Nellis comes to realize that he and his mother are land rich and cash poor, a situation that is compounded by his mother’s medical bills and the threat of losing his job.
Rather than live with his mother, or sell the property for a hefty sum, Nellis sleeps in his car or on the beach while working for PDT Biological Consulting with the nasty, ill-tempered Gordon Shaw. Nellis is unable to break the Curse of Biologist One – Shaw’s unbearably high expectations for new staff – and is soon fired. But things start to look up when Shaw’s boss at PDT, Peter Trumble, asks Nellis to return and begin working on land assessments for a wealthy businessman named Richard Headley.
Written with a limited, third person perspective, we get a close look at the dilemmas Nellis faces, his decisions and struggles in the face of mounting obstacles. The narrative is driven by steady action and stripped down, sometimes terse, language. With a penchant for taking risks, Nellis is tempted by Headley’s luxurious lifestyle and soon finds himself choosing easy cash to cover gambling debt, repairs to his mother’s house and, why not, a new wetsuit and surfboard. But these decisions further complicate things for Nellis, forcing his hand in every aspect of his life – his pursuit of Sarah Janss, Shaw’s former fiancé, his personal quest to establish right and wrong, and his desire to solve the mystery of his father’s death.
As the lives of the multi-faceted characters in this novel become more deeply intertwined, the plot takes the reader on twists and turns filled with suspense. Headley is convincing when he says that the land he owns must be put to work in order to justify owning it. And with every acre of land he develops, he preserves many more. Or so he says.
Imperfect Solitude forces the reader to consider the gray areas, the subtle lines between preservation and development, raising the question of who must make choices that permanently affect natural resources and the community at large. A field biologist, perhaps, an overworked city regulator, or a developer that has to turn profits to keep the company afloat.
Nellis spirals downward into Headley’s world for long enough to leave Solitude Beach behind. But early in this novel the reader will begin to wonder what lines must be crossed for him to return.
Click here to read an interview with the author at Boston Literary Magazine.