Category Archives: thriller

A Student of Living Things by Susan Richards Shreve

In the moment it takes Claire Frayn to dig for her umbrella, her politically outspoken brother Steven is shot down next to her on the library steps of their D. C. college. Claire is determined to unravel the mystery of her brother’s murder. Searching for answers, she meets Victor, an enigmatic stranger who claims to know who killed Steven. Claire begins an unusual correspondence with the suspected assassin, but instead of uncovering the truth of her brother’s death, she finds herself drawn into a passionate love affair and an unexpected moral dilemma. (Synopsis source:

A Student is a political thriller, but it is also a portrait of grief and its effects on family dynamics, which is the subtext buried beneath almost every plot point in this novel. Shreve handles this well enough, writing one complicated narrative instead of two competing ones, but I want to talk about them separately because I feel that A Student succeeds in one until it fails at the other.

The Frayn family is very organically DC; highly educated, politically active, classically bourgeoisie enough to be heavily invested in the way that they look to the exterior world. When Steven is assassinated by a mysterious gunman out of what they assume to be nowhere, their heads spin not only because they have lost a son and a brother, but because his death has violated everything they know about themselves. Only Claire, a biology student with broody tendencies, can reflect on his death unselfishly. As she does so, she finds herself being drawn away from her family. Shreve handles this exceptionally well; no character is in the wrong in A Student. Their grief just functions differently. And as Claire, whose childhood was spent with her head in the clouds and whose adolescence was spent collecting dead animals and whose earliest adult years were spent learning about the mechanics of life, struggles to understand what death is, as a concept, she finds herself becoming obsessed with finding the murderer of her brother because – somehow – that will clarify what his death means. 

It becomes fairly obvious early on that Steven’s death is political in nature, which sort of becomes the “B plot” of A Student. It is only a good 100 pages into this 260 page novel that the mysterious and probably insane Victor turns up to inform Claire that he knows who killed her brother, which launches A Student from family drama status into thriller territory. Victor urges Claire to start a pseudo-romantic correspondence with the supposed murderer, which soon becomes a not-so-pseudo romance when Claire begins to fall for the man on the other side of the letters. As she and Victor continue their research into the circumstances of Steven’s death, Claire realizes that she may be on the side of the wrong man. The political intrigue, often relegated to the background in favor of relationship dynamics, could not possibly have stood on its own and I assumed it was mostly there to provide an action-packed climax, but I was proven wrong.

There is no action heavy, thriller-style climax to A Student. There simply isn’t time. By the end of the novel, Shreve is managing a romance in addition to a mystery and a family drama. And all three are underdeveloped. The love story is half-baked and dull, the political intrigue remains shoved into the background, the family drama is left dangling. The end of A Student feels unfocused and rushed. Not suspenseful or quick-paced, but crowded. This novel could have ended nicely in several different ways, but Shreve settled for an awkward mash of all of them. Mixing genres is always a bit of a risk, and Shreve proved unable to take it gracefully.

Not recommended