Surprise Me, a debut novel, is an unconventional love story about two writers who see more in each other than they see in themselves, and how that faith transforms them.
The fragile dream of becoming a writer takes hold during Isabelle Rothman’s senior year of college. Against all advice, she begins a one-on-one tutorial with a once highly praised novelist, Daniel Jablonski, who is known on campus for being eccentric, difficult, and disengaged. Despite his reputation, Isabelle loves his early novels and harbors a secret hope that Daniel might teach her how to write such luminous prose. But their first meeting is a disaster: Daniel is unprepared, never having read the chapters she submitted, and does not apologize. Isabelle is furious and feels dismissed.
But over the semester, they gingerly form a bond that begins to anchor both of them. And over the next twenty years, as they live very separate lives—Isabelle in Northern California and Daniel finally settled in a tiny New Hampshire town—they reach out through e-mails, phone calls, and occasional visits. Their continual connection helps Isabelle find the courage to take risks and enables Daniel to work through layers of regret and begin to write again. They are the single constant and the most profound influence in each other’s life.
Daniel and Isabelle recognize they are among the blessed few who met at the exact moment they needed each other the most. In a final collaboration, the boundaries between teacher and student give way to a work that heals something in both of them. Each truly sees the other as extraordinary—as people do when they love—and that belief makes all the difference.
Goldstone traces a decades-long friendship and mentorship in this debut novel. College student and aspiring novelist Isabelle Rothman chooses Daniel Jablonski as the advisor for her senior year independent study project. She greatly admires Daniel's early novels, but she finds out that the reclusive, unpredictable novelist is suffering from both writer's block and agoraphobia, not to mention deeply damaged relationships with both of his adult children. It turns out, however, that mentoring Isabelle might be just the thing to help Daniel begin to overcome his personal fears, just as he inspires Isabelle to become a more fearless writer. Over the next 20 years, Isabelle and Daniel intermittently turn to one another through episodes of personal crisis and professional frustrations. Those who enjoy the more measured pace and tighter focus on the writers' craft in the novel's first part (not to mention the slow-burning growth of Isabelle and Daniel's relationship) may grow restless at later sections' temporal leaps, awkward shifts in perspective, and movement away from an explicit "portrait of the artist" narrative. In particular, the denouement, which takes place after a forward jump of 14 years, just glosses over events that could have been the real payoff for the situation developed in the novel's early pages. Although Goldstone nominally tells both Isabelle and Daniel's stories, Daniel's later-in-life reinvention of self forms the far more compelling narrative arc.