This is the review:
In most books, there are underlying issues and themes expressed through the main characters. Greg Messel’s Expiation is no different, as the story dwells on the turbulent political atmosphere in San Francisco in 1970, and how the main character, Dan, is destined to be separated from his high school sweetheart, Katie.
Despite the story being about high school sweethearts, Dan and Katie, Messel embeds various political issues from the start. When Dan first moves to San Francisco to attend U.C. Berkeley, his first images are of Alcatraz Island—the renowned ex-federal prison that housed the most lethal gangsters in history, including Al Capone. In Dan’s letters to Katie, he expresses his excitement about the campus, “There are protests against the war in Vietnam and there are people giving speeches and carrying signs about almost every cause there is. There is a line of open microphones on one of the plazas on campus. The microphones are live and anyone can grab one and make a speech about anything they want.”
Messel does an excellent job—capturing the excitement that a college freshman feels when first stepping onto campus. Moreover, Berkeley was the epitome of free expression, whether it was about the war, against drugs, the new Beatles album, flower power, or Richard Nixon; anything could be freely expressed without consequences.
Mark Twain best captures Dan’s dreams in one of his famous letters: “San Francisco is a city of startling events. Happy is the man whose destiny it is to gather them up and record them in a daily newspaper!” Working for the Examiner, as well as for the San Francisco Chronicle became Dan’s life, particularly during the time of the Zodiac murders.
The parallel lives of Dan and Katie, in conjunction with political events, are truly intriguing. While Dan is bidding farewell to Katie in Seattle, the Zodiac murderer, 700 miles away in Vallejo, California—near San Francisco—is about to startle the country with his heinous crime spree. Dan’s publication, the Examiner, receives the Zodiac’s letter: “Dear Editor, This is the Zodiac. This was the first time that the killer called himself the ‘Zodiac.’ The name would strike terror throughout the Bay Area for the next couple of years.”
Unwittingly, the Zodiac would play an instrumental role in Dan and Katie’s separation. Looking for his first real break, Dan is astonished when he is asked to cover the Zodiac case; however, he is forced to decide between his career and returning to Katie during the holidays as planned. The dilemma Dan faces at such a pivotal juncture in his life is one that many have faced before him. Dan, after weighing the situation, thinks, “I knew that to be successful in the news business, you had to be ready when opportunity knocked. There was no guarantee that opportunity would come knocking a second time.”
As history would have it, Dan would stay in San Francisco for the holidays and become a respected expert on the Zodiac killer—at the expense of losing the love of his life. He recalled that, “There were only a couple of times I talked with Katie on the phone after the beginning of 1970. She never mentioned Christmas again. Something seemed to have changed.”
Readers will be touched profoundly as they follow Dan on a quest to recapture the love he forsook for a career. In a setting of the tumultuous 1970s, incorporating themes of love and politics, Greg Messel’s Expiation will have readers turning pages to the end to see if “do-overs” really are possible, even after a lifetime of regret.