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Books You Missed: Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein – A Review

You will enjoy this if: You have read The Plot and wished it focused more on the legal and ethical nuances of writing, you enjoy flawed characters making dubious decisions, you enjoy novels about novels!

Caleb’s wildest dreams are about to come true: he is going to become a published author.

There’s just one problem though. It may not be his story to tell.

Of late, there seems to be an influx of fiction with one writer stealing another’s work, The Plot being one of the more popular releases from 2021. Where The Plot collapses under the weight of its own hubris (a plot of a lifetime! – a plot that was maddeningly predictable), Last Resort shines through its erratic main character. Caleb Horowitz is searching for that elusive first successful novel when he stays the night with an old acquaintance from college. Avi Dietsch tells Caleb about his trip to Greece, recounting his adventures with a mysterious young woman as well as with a married couple – an experience he has written about in a short story.  Caleb, with the mind of an aspiring writer, judges Avi’s own writing as poor, with its one-dimensional characters and lack of plot. Nevertheless, praising it as a promising beginning, Caleb leaves Avi, already dreaming of how he could write the story better. And so he does and passes it off as his own novel. That is his first questionable decision. Maybe he should have alerted Avi, who, as fate would have it, works as an editorial assistant in one of the very publishing houses considering Caleb’s book. And then there’s the matter of the characters’ names… 

As his novel is shopped around by his blustery but very successful agent, Caleb vacillates between guilt and uneasy justification, at one point running an online plagiarism check on his novel. When it comes back at 2 percent similarities, he calls that “acquittal”, never truly believing it. Avi will find out, surely, he will, and what happens then?

This was probably pure coincidence, but the similarities between this book to the real-life dispute between Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson beautifully documented by Robert Kolker in the New York Times late last year is fascinating to me. This book asks a lot of the same questions: Who really owns a story – the person who lived it or the person who shared it with the world? Where else would writers look for inspiration if not real life? In this age where authenticity is elusive and sought after, Andrew Lipstein offers an interesting perspective on the ownership of ideas, and the nature of success. Does success equal money and fame, the recognition of your peers or both? Though it lacks in character development beyond that of Caleb, it did not really affect my enjoyment of the story the author meant to tell. It’s Caleb’s world and we are living in it, and I suspect that’s how Lipstein meant to write it. 

That’s not to say the book is perfect. Characters besides Caleb are not particularly memorable, the focus on Caleb ultimately robbing most of them of nuance or richness. The characters in this book are far from likable and hard to cheer for – if you need likable characters in your books, this one is not for you. The first act is slow to get going which is more than made up for by the legal and ethical quandaries faced by Caleb in the second act, though the story lacks in its justification of protagonist’s increasingly erratic actions. 

Ultimately, it is Caleb, who is very entertaining to read even if you want to punch him at every turn and the refreshing way the author deals with the issues of artistic freedom, ownership of ideas and privacy that make this one a delightful and easy read.

Photo credit: https://www.popmatters.com/andrew-lipstein-last-resort-review

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