Patricia Leavy’s novel, “Spark,” turns on a single ambiguous question: “What is the answer?”

Leavy, who lives in Kennebunk, brings her background as a professor of sociology to the story (she taught at Stonehill College in Massachusetts for a decade). Peyton Wilde, an accomplished young professor, is invited to the highly exclusive Goodright Institute in Iceland. She has been selected to be a part of a seven-person team, which has been drawn from a broad spectrum of endeavors. For five days, her team will compete against six other teams to find the answer, an endeavor that frames the novel.

Cover courtesy of Guilford Press

Leavy borrows a favorite Agatha Christie device, namely gathering a selection of types and setting them together in an enclosed space for a period of time to struggle with a problem. In Peyton’s group, there’s Liev, the renowned, often arrogant neuroscientist, who, when he learns of the enigmatic “what is the answer?” task, asks his own question: “Is this a joke?” Arianna, a Peruvian neuroscientist, is a protégé of Liev. The team also includes Ronnie, an innovative collage artist; Harper, a bohemian Australian dancer; Milton, a blue-ribbon-winning farmer who has never before been outside the United States; and Dietrich, a philosopher, whose initial take on the question is, “It’s clearly philosophical.”

“That’s absurd,” Liev retorts. “I am a scientist. I assumed I was invited for my expertise.”

And, of course, there is Peyton Wilde herself, who is anything but wild. A noted professor and published author who is living a comfortable life at a Vermont liberal arts college, she is also unsure of herself and anxious about people’s perceptions of her. She suffers from a growing sense of hopelessness and a kind of ennui, which springs from feeling alone in the world. Wilde arrives in Iceland excited to be included but horrified at the prospects of having to step forward, to participate, to contribute. She torments herself with interior monologues – “How did I get here? Don’t do that, Peyton. Don’t question it to death. Just be grateful and enjoy it.” She’s designated the team scribe and will write the final report to submit to the institute.

At the group’s first meeting, Liev suggests they go around the table, everyone giving their opinions on the task, and once all the ideas are out, begin debating them.

“Maybe we should frame it as a discussion, not a debate,” Ronnie suggests.

Liev rolled his eyes.

At the end of the first day, no progress has been made. For two more days, the team remains stymied, as do the other six groups.

Meanwhile, there are team-building trips, such as an outing to a hot springs and a hike to the top of an active volcano. Peyton is afraid of heights, but Liev offers to have her back the whole way. The group begins to bond.

Peyton marvels at her shift in attitude toward Liev and begins to realize that each team member needs to challenge their own assumptions and work more truly collaboratively. The group needs to break down, and hopefully discard, narrow perceptions and limited thinking about the question.

Leavy relies overmuch on interior monologue to advance the story. The extensive use, the overuse, of italics is distracting. While the group members are intriguing, they never rise to become fully developed characters.

The book has been described as a “research novel.” The publisher has suggested “Spark” be used in courses on qualitative research, education, sociology, social work, psychology and communication. The afterward contains several instructive elements, one titled “Research Activities.” Perhaps this is the real aim of the “Spark,” as sustaining tension and developing complete story and character arcs do not seem to be.

The most engaging scenes showcase group dynamics when the characters are discussing the issues. In these scenes, the dialogue is good, and the eclectic personalities of the group do begin to emerge.

“Spark” raises important questions about the limitations of mental frameworks and the power of the collaborative process, questions that intrigue me. The novel succeeds in getting readers to think. Too bad the storytelling doesn’t carry the load.

Frank O Smith’s novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound” and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Smith is also a ghostwriter and writing instructor. Reach him via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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