Published last October, Montana marks Florio’s debut novel (to be followed by Dakota later this year), though the author is no stranger to the written word. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and, as a veteran journalist, her reporting has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to domestic assignments, Florio has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia—experiences that vividly color her creative canvas.
Montana introduces protagonist Lola Wicks, who has been downgraded from her post as foreign correspondent in Kabul to suburban beat reporter stateside. Infuriated by this perceived demotion, Lola faces further indignity when her editor demands that she take vacation and re-acclimate to home soil. Without an alternative, Lola makes plans to visit colleague and friend Mary Alice Carr at her Montana cabin. Mary Alice is conspicuously absent upon Lola’s arrival, and Lola later discovers her body in an overlook outside the home, the victim of a gunshot wound to the head.
As if the circumstances aren’t bad enough, Lola’s plan to return to Afghanistan is thwarted when she is told that she cannot leave the area due to the ensuing investigation. Given her rusty social skills, Lola’s rapport with the locals—including a wealthy rancher, a novice sheriff, a controversial gubernatorial candidate, and a fellow reporter—is tenuous at best. After all, this is a woman who prefers a sleeping bag to a bed (and coffee to food), secretes rolls of cash on her body, and has no appreciation for the art of small talk. This sense of physical and emotional isolation only exacerbates her vulnerabilities.
With nothing but time on her hands (and a dog and a horse to tend to), Lola decides to independently pursue answers to the nagging questions surrounding her friend’s death, despite warnings to the contrary. Not only she become exposed to the venomous atmosphere of local politics—a plight that Mary Alice was intimately familiar with—but it renders Lola an unwitting target of enemy (or enemies) unknown. Desperate forces are at work to keep certain truths from being revealed at all costs, and Lola’s curiosity may prove to be her downfall.
Florio delivers a competent and well-plotted mystery that will satisfy genre readers, but it’s her portrayal of Lola as a stranger readjusting to life in her own country that truly sets this story apart. As aloof as the character can be, there is redemption in her battered-yet-triumphant sense of humanity. Complexities are indicative of life, both on and beyond the page, and, ultimately, that’s what makes this book relatable. Montana is an accomplished debut from an author to watch …