Book Review: Conundrum by CS Lakin

Book: Conundrum
Author: CS Lakin
Pages: 283
Format: Kindle/ebook
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services
Book Source: Provided by Author
Category: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Style: Intense, intelligent and compelling mystery

Synopsis from Amazon:

     A happily married man with three small children decides one day he no longer wants to live. He gives himself leukemia and nine months later is dead.
     This is the conundrum Lisa Sitteroff is determined to solve regarding her dead father—the tale her mother, Ruth, told Lisa and her two brothers, Rafferty and Neal, throughout their childhood. But Lisa, now thirty and watching Raff suffer from the ravages of bipolar illness, believes if she can solve this puzzle, she might somehow save her brother. For Raff’s pain is intrinsically tied up with feelings of parental abandonment. . . .
     Conundrum explores the rocky landscape of betrayal and truth, asking whether a search for truth is worth the price, and showing how separating from toxic family members might sometimes be the only recourse for survival. Lisa pays a high price for truth, but in the end finds it worthwhile.  read more . . . 

My Take:

I first read Ms. Lakin's writing in a guest blog post on the subject of Christian Fiction:  Is It Effective?  I wandered over to her author page, and finally to Live, Write, Thrive, her blog for writers and editors.  By then, I was hooked and simply had to get my hands on her work.  In addition to her bang-up writing advice, her proposition that "Christian fiction" can and should reflect a wide world view and reach a broad range of audiences resonated with me.  To quote:
I feel a pressing calling from God to reach out to the lost in the world, to those who have no hope and do not know a plan of salvation has been executed on their behalf and is being offered to them. I look at my writing as 100% ministry, and my efforts and prayers are all directed toward those ends. I take the views of authors like Flannery O’Conner and Madeline L’Engle who felt strongly that their writing should honestly and even painfully reflect the true state of the human condition, of sin, and all its ugliness without censoring. from Nikole Hahn's Journal, Christian Fiction: Is It Effective
Ms. Lakin does exactly that with Conundrum, a story about the dysfunctional Sitterhoff family with an unhappy past:  Lisa, the daughter and care-taker, all things to all people; Jeremy, her long-suffering husband; Rafferty, the eldest son with way too much baggage and debilitating, life-threatening bipolar disorder; Neal, the irresponsible baby of the family; and Ruth, the matriarch incapable of tenderness who uses wealth and a finely honed talent for inflicting guilt to manipulate her grown children.

Conundrum resonated with me on many levels, having experiences which mirrored those in the book.  People I love are burdened with the very real, life-altering effects of depression and bipolar disorder.  Others struggle with their interpersonal relationships and their inability to see beyond the mistaken truths they have created for themselves to cope with the unhappiness in their lives.  Ms. Lakin takes these issues head-on, as she does marital discord, infertility and financial disaster.

She takes them on, works her characters through them one incredibly painful step at a time, offers some hope, allows others the imperfect happiness they have fought for, and stepped away from still others in disassociation to protect the rest. Neither does she leave any of them faultless or absolutely justified in their actions, even the best-meaning of them.  In Conundrum, there are no absolutes, no pat answers, no definitive "vorpal sword to defeat the Jabberwok".

Set in 1986, in rural-ish Marin Country, California, north of San Francisco, the central plot of the story revolves around Lisa's journey into her father's past.  A brilliant mathematician, Nathan Sitterhoff worked in the aerospace industry which provided nuclear energy for the long-distance space probes of the Gemini project.  In this story within the story, well-developed and well-researched, Ms. Lakin's plot, characters, and motivations all ring true.

In the process of uncovering the truth one fragment at a time, Lisa Sitterhoff alienates her family and raises more questions than she could ever hope to answer.  Seeking out associations 25 years gone, each character involved relates their own personal, often conflicting truths.  It is up to Lisa to toggle together the mismatched perspectives to create a hazy, incomplete picture of the past—one that will ultimately set all three siblings free.  For me, the ordeal resembled watching someone else work a jigsaw puzzle with my hands tied behind my back and my mouth taped shut.

However, the mystery of Nathan's death serves as a catalyst to healing and hope for his children, rather like chemotherapy.  Truth, the figurative drug necessary to bring about the emotional recovery so desperately required first must bring the family body as near death as possible.  Ms. Lakin uses the metaphor of cancer to powerfully incorporate the lies, half-truths and misconceptions that quite nearly destroy Raff, Lisa's marriage, and any hope Neal ever has of becoming more than his mother's appendage.

With her intelligent, insightful prose, Ms. Lakin has created very real, very flawed characters struggling with raw, debilitating circumstances.  However, she manages   to do so while yet maintaining her own standards.  More importantly, she broaches the themes of hope, healing, forgiveness and compassion in a manner anyone of any faith (or lack thereof) can embrace.  While her characters engage in some very un-Christian activities, profoundly worldly and she faces them head-on, in Conundrum, she proves my thesis that one need not resort to the salacious, crass and profane to create truly great fiction.

Conundrum is not a fast read.  It is not even a fun read.  However, it is intensely profound and compelling, one to pause over, read again and surrender to introspection—one which tempts the reader not only onward into more of Ms. Lakin's works but also to the classics which have so obviously influenced her.

Bottom line:  I very much enjoyed this book and recommend it.  I found it a welcome change of pace and a great addition to my library.

FTC disclaimer:  An electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the author or their agent with the understanding I would provide a fair and honest review.  I receive no other compensation for this content.

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