Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391
The Incendiaries (Riverhead, 2018) tells the story of a pair of college students visited by a cult figure. The characters are college students as well as the cult leader himself. The chapters rotate among (and are named for) the three main characters, Will, Phoebe, and John Leal.
The book's first chapter is told from the perspective of Will, who reflects (in a flashback) on an explosion that took place on her college campus. Will is a working-class boy from California who transferred from a Christian college to Edwards when he lost his religious faith. He feels out of place at the (fictional) Edwards college campus, as most other students are privileged. Will hides the fact that he works at a restaurant in order to earn extra money for his single mother. Will is a good student, and he meets Phoebe at a party on a college campus, soon becoming obsessed with her. Though he claims to care for her deeply, he rapes her out of frustration with her involvement in a cult.
John Leal is the leader of the cult, which he calls "Jejah." He is a former Edwards student (though Will can find no records of his graduation). John Leal preaches to a group of cult members (including Phoebe) whom he has recruited from the college campus. He invites these students to live in his home, encourages them to attend a pro-life demonstration in Manhattan, and (eventually) inspires several of them to bomb an abortion clinic. Leal inspires his cult members with stories about his time in a gulag, where he was imprisoned for smuggling refugees from Korea to China.
Phoebe (born "Haejin") is half Korean. As a child, she played piano diligently, but stopped playing when given a recording by (the fictional) Libich's "Étude no. 5" (as she feels inadequate as compared with former composers). Phoebe was driving home from a cello recital when she got into an accident that resulted in her mother's death. Phoebe is a popular and social girl at the beginning of her sophomore year at Edwards, but she becomes reclusive when she joins John Leal's cult. Leal realizes she is wealthy owing to her mother's death and convinces her to donate money to the cult. Eventually, Phoebe leads a group of cult members to bomb an abortion clinic—an event which in turn prompts her suicide.
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