Ben’s Dilemma
By KRISTEN INTLEKOFER | October 12, 2010

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It’s a well-known story. Two women give birth to male children just days apart. One of the infants dies during the night while everyone in the household is asleep. The women come before King Solomon, each claiming the sole living child as her son.

In her debut novel, Solomon’s Puzzle, Loris Nebbia explores a twist on this old and familiar story: What if the child had been given to the liar?

The novel follows Ben Hunter, a quiet and thoughtful fifteen-year-old trying his best to navigate his father’s violent moods. In school and on the basketball court, Ben is always two steps ahead of everyone else, accomplishing academic and athletic feats with an easy grace that appears effortless. He is inquisitive, seeking out the answers to problems with a tireless determination. But what he can’t figure out is why his father—who is at times menacing, at times almost friendly—seems to harbor a burning hatred toward him.

The story takes place in Annapolis, where Ben’s family has relocated to the U.S. Naval Academy at the start of his junior year of high school. Nebbia’s elegant descriptions of the setting are almost enough to make native Marylanders forget about the oppressive August humidity. Anyone who has ever visited Annapolis will recognize its familiar beauty immediately:

Ben turned to see the widening vista of Main Street slope down to the dock. The water in the harbor beyond lay still and smooth, glazed in a wide path with the hot sunlight that glowed above thin, gold-edged clouds. Seagulls coasted through the slanted morning sunlight. This same clear light reflected from the harbor’s white boats and gilded the scattered panes of glass in the quiet brick storefronts that lined the street and burnished the brick streets to crimson.

In addition to her powers of description, Nebbia is equally skilled at creating characters who are convincingly real, with rich back stories and relationships that entangle them in one another’s lives. The tortured and unpredictable Max Hunter, the mysterious Gregen Bénet, the kind and compassionate Tom MacBride, who cannot tell a lie yet seems to be holding back part of the truth.

Through these characters, Solomon’s Puzzle explores the bounds of human relationships and the complex questions they raise. How far must one go in the name of family loyalty? Do our past experiences dictate the paths our lives are bound to follow? Does God place us in difficult circumstances for a reason, or has God left the building?

Nebbia’s thoughtful plotting reveals how bad experiences, past mistakes, and bitterness can eventually turn human beings into villains. But in spite of dark plot twists, this is, overall, a story of hope; you will no doubt find yourself rooting for Ben.

Kristen Intlekofer is a magazine editor. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

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