Home Arts Book Review Lambek Writes an Engaging, Second “Novel of Ideas”

Lambek Writes an Engaging, Second “Novel of Ideas”

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Author Bernie Lambek last month at the Capital City Farmers Market. Photo by Tom McKone.

At the recent launch of Bernie Lambek’s second novel, “An Intent to Commit,” fellow novelist Howard Norman aptly called it a “novel of ideas” and said “the twists and turns the law can take can be the stuff of good fiction.”

“He uses his own knowledge of the law as a kind of scaffolding that holds together a very well-told tale,” Norman said. “But even in a novel of ideas, as Bernie’s novel certainly is, we want strong and vivid characters.”

Two of those characters are Sarah Jacobson and Ricky Stillwell, who appeared in Lambek’s first book, “Uncivil Liberties,” and who emerge here in a new light that gives readers a deeper understanding and appreciation of them.

Although the book centers on First Amendment rights, Lambek never slips into legalese. Conversations about the law – including discussions between lawyers – are stimulating and show that freedom of speech and other rights are more complicated than they may first seem. Even Lambek’s well-chosen passages from case law are very readable for non-lawyers. He shows that 230 years after ratification of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment remains dynamic, complex, and often controversial.

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Referring to Montpelier High School and U-32 at his reading, Lambek said “The First Amendment issues come up with flying the Black Lives Matter flags in schools and whether when a school does that it creates a public forum for expression in which students with differing ideas then get a First Amendment right to fly the flag that they want to fly.”

As he did in “Uncivil Liberties,” Lambek set this book mostly in and near Montpelier. His attention to detail – people and places, sometimes with real names and sometimes with different names but easily identifiable to locals – provides ambiance and establishes authentic locations for the story. A longtime attorney with an office on East State Street, Lambek both knows Montpelier well and is well known in town.

“An Intent to Commit” opens with a fictional event, the kidnapping of Sarah Jacobson, who is now an organizer for Green Mountain Black Lives Matter, as she buys gas at the Randolph exit off Interstate 89. Real life events, such as the raising of BLM flags at the two high schools, are woven into the plot, and Lambek includes actual newspaper reports and quotes; however, as he emphasizes in the author’s note, the work as a whole is fiction.

The novel broaches many subjects, including racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and sexism, that are both timely and, unfortunately, seemingly timeless.

Characterization is especially important to Lambek; his “good” characters have flaws, and he often shows that people who do bad things can still have good sides.

“With the villains in the book, I try to portray full characters with stories that are sometimes sympathetic,” he said. Writing in the third person allows him to go into the minds of some characters. There is a love story – more than one, really – but I’ll leave that for readers to discover on their own. 

In addition to novels and legal documents, Lambek writes for The Bridge in its column, “The Way I See It.” In an email, I asked him how his approach to those various types of writing differs.

“In all three types of writing, I am interested in trying to achieve clarity,” he said. “With fiction, there is, of course, the freedom to make things up. [I] can’t do that with legal briefs and other legal writing … The essays I wrote for The Bridge about my father are not fiction, but they tell a story, too, about his life experiences and about our relationship. In both the essays and the novels, I am trying to engage the reader with an exploration of ideas, perspectives, relationships, conflicts, and emotions.”

Engaging characters, interesting stories, and the intermingled themes of freedom of speech and social justice make “An Intent to Commit” a rewarding read and a good book to add to this winter’s must-read list.