It’s a crazy-ass thing to want to publish a book. The work it takes. The struggling to figure it out, to process the criticism, to make it better, make it better, make it better yet after the umpteenth person has said “not quite right for us” or just “not quite.” And then if you’re lucky enough, and the manuscript gets set and bound, some reviewer—should your luck hold out and you garner one’s attention— might dismiss all your efforts in a few sentences. I think I was most terrified of this happening to me in the Chicago Reader, which has been my paper of record for the twenty years that I’ve lived in this town, and which is not always nice. So—whew—a weight lifted off my shoulders when I read this review. What if there had not been a “but” after the “maudlin”? What if there had not been a “rather than” before the “irritating”? But there was. Thank god. Thank Julia Thiel. My hopes are that this “but” and “rather than” will shield me from any darts that may yet come my way.
“Part of my job is to read your face,” says Piv, a young Thai man who befriends travelers and sends them to local businesses in exchange for a commission from the owners, at the start of Currency. Zoe Zolbrod’s debut novel alternates between Piv’s perspective and that of Robin, a young American itinerant who can’t bring herself to leave Thailand even though she’s long since run out of money. When the two meet and decide to go into business together, buying jewelry in Indonesia and reselling it in Thailand, it briefly seems plausible that both their business and their budding relationship will work.
But then Robin discovers that her credit cards are maxed out. Her first move is to ask her dad for a ticket home, and Piv’s instinct is also to cut his losses. He solves the money problem, though, by convincing an acquaintance to involve them in an international smuggling operation. Their work becomes progressively more dangerous, but the real tension in the story is always rooted in whether Robin and Piv can trust each other. Even as they fall deeper in love, each expects a betrayal. The conceit could easily become maudlin, but Zolbrod’s deft character development and graceful writing avoid the pitfalls. Even the fact that Piv’s narration is riddled with the small grammatical errors and odd turns of phrase common to nonnative English speakers comes across as appropriate rather than irritating. —Julia Thiel