A Student of Living Things


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.


"Stylish and sleek and tightly configured . . . steeped in our incongruities and potent mysteries - most especially those of the heart." —Richard Ford

"A Student of Living Things is a sheer pleasure to read. It is elegantly written and ingeniously plotted, glittering with insights into human vulnerability and madness. The losses and hopes in the story force one to ponder long after the last page was turned." —Ha Jin

"Part family drama and part psychological thriller, it is something else as well: an old fashioned epistolary romance. Its enigmatic characters and its intimate contemplation of love, loss, and the scope of the imagination will remain with the reader well beyond the last page." —The Seattle Times

"Written with an uncanny feel for a future we may be creating, A Student of Living Things has much to teach us about the mysteries of grief, love, and forgiveness." —Penguin Classics


Today is my brother’s twenty-seventh birthday. It’s only seven in the morning, one of those hot, brown, swampy days in Washington, the air so thick it’s difficult to breathe. Children drape like damp cloths over the fire hydrants, around the lampposts, too weary to play. The long-suffering National Guardsmen, half asleep in their fatigues and sidearms, lean against the cool marble of government buildings.

I’ve arrived early at the Eastern Market, since my mother will be coming for a special lunch this afternoon—the first time she has been to my apartment since I moved away from home. She’ll bring her sister, my aunt Faith, and perhaps her son, my cousin, who lost his leg four years ago in an explosion.

“His leg but not his life,” my mother says every time his name, which is Bernard, comes up.

My mother would prefer to recognize the day of my brother’s murder. It’s in her character, just as it’s in my father’s to celebrate the day of Steven’s birth, to slip over the evening of April 4, when my only brother was shot on the steps of the George Washington University Gelman Library, where he was studying for his law exams. My father likes to think the years will continue to accumulate to Steve, although our memory of him is locked in at twenty-five. I understand the feelings of both of my parents and neither of them. It’s the way with parents—just as you think you know them, they slide away like mercury breaking into slippery bits that would take endless patience to reassemble.

I am no longer a patient woman.