TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that the British writer Lawrence Osborne writes novels so addictive that John keeps giving copies to his friends, who pass them on to their book groups, who then fall under their spell. In Osborne's new novel, "Beautiful Animals," two entitled girls vacationing on a chic Greek island get involved with a mysterious stranger, with wholly unexpected results. John says if you haven't read Osborne, this is a great place to start.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's that time of the year when you hear talk of summer reading, a term that refers to books that are fun and undemanding - you know, the perfect accompaniment to lying on the beach. Such books heighten the airy sense of irresponsibility that comes with escaping the gravity of our lives back home. That weightlessness is at the core of "Beautiful Animals," a seductively menacing new thriller by Lawrence Osborne, a Bangkok-based English writer who unites Graham Greene's fondness for foreign soil with Patricia Highsmith's fascination with the nastier coils of the human psyche.
Set on the jet-setting Greek island of Hydra, this new novel offers all the glamorous pleasures of a vacation page-turner. You never know where it's heading, but it has things on its mind. The story begins with Naomi, a disgraced British lawyer in her late 20s who's spending the summer at the fancy vacation home of her father, an art collector whose values she disdains, though not enough to stop living off his money. Cynical and bored, she describes herself as a spinning top. Naomi is delighted when she meets Sam, a gorgeous American college girl who feels superior to her own father, a liberal journalist. Even though Sam catches a whiff of sociopathy in Naomi's sophistication, she's attracted by it.
Soon they're wandering the sun-bedazzled island, basking in their own specialness. Things change when Naomi and Sam stumble across a handsome, young man washed up on an isolated beach. His name is Faoud, and he's pretty clearly that inescapable figure in today's fiction, a migrant. Fancying herself an idealist, Naomi wants to help him, and she concocts the sort of childish scheme you only cook up if your life has insulated you from the idea of consequences. And though Sam doesn't love the plan, she's too weak to escape Naomi's orbit when things start to boomerang.
Now, Osborne made his name as a brilliant travel writer. And like his earlier novels, set in Morocco, Macau and Cambodia, "Beautiful Animals" creates a thrillingly immersive sense of place. Whether he's describing the pale chocolate color of soil around olive trees, the exact crockery you'd find in a yacht or the sociology of Hydra's Four Seasons Resort - famous, I discovered, for being filled with Russians - his sharp, knowing prose lets us see this island world and smell it and hear it. Because he spent so much of his life on the road, Osborne knows firsthand the dreams, delusions, foibles and monstrosities of modern tourists and ex-pats.
At one point, Naomi thinks that visitors to Hydra, quote, "were out of their element and therefore unleashed. Their eyes had a different cruelty and freedom." Osborne clearly agrees. Compulsively searching for something, his characters adopt new personalities, do reckless things and treat other people's lands as theme parks where what's happening isn't quite real. But, of course, it is. And the tension in his work lies in waiting to see what happens when those thoughtlessly skimming a foreign land suddenly collide with terra firma. In "Beautiful Animals," the refugee Faoud is not simply a victim or a cause but a man with ambitions of his own. The locals on Hydra may accept tourists' money, but that doesn't mean they share their values or desires or plans.
So what does all this mean for those beautiful animals, Naomi and Sam? When things go wrong, are they taken down by their antics, or are they shielded by their privilege? I'll say only this - what makes Osborne's work so compelling is that it's ruthlessly unpredictable. This is one writer who knows that life, even on a rapturously lovely Greek island, is no day at the beach.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed the novel "Beautiful Animals" by Lawrence Osborne. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how Steve Bannon helped get Donald Trump elected, from identifying and targeting white, disaffected young men to mobilizing the anti-Clinton industry and emphasizing anti-immigration positions. My guest will be journalist Joshua Green, author of the new book "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency." I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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