On the surface Jane Pek’s debut novel The Verifiers is a relatively straightforward mystery story. The protagonist, Claudia Lin, is a young Chinese American woman living in New York who works at Veracity, a company that checks on the profiles posted on internet dating sites to see how accurate they are. Veracity’s clients are those who want to know how honest profile posters are before they reach out to them. Claudia’s first client, Iris Lettriste, unexpectedly dies before Claudia has finished working on the profiles of interest. Her death is ruled a suicide.
Claudia does not believe Iris’s death was suicide. Claudia’s superiors, supervisor Becks Rittel and boss Komla Astina, ignore Claudia’s concerns. They tell her to move on. She can’t. The detective gene is in her blood. Claudia’s relentless search for the truth provides the main thrust of the novel.
Claudia’s preferred mode of transportation is a bicycle. She rides it throughout the city. [Think of David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries or Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks.] Claudia is a semi-closeted lesbian whose roommate, Max, is a gay man and an artist. Her dysfunctional family consists of an abused and eccentric mother subject to migraines who lives alone after the father left, a successful older brother Charles who works for “Precision Consulting, a “Super Big Deal management consulting firm that helps companies fuel digital transformation and craft innovative solutions in order to unlock value,” and sister Coralline who “does marketing for an unpronounceable French fashion brand that makes clothes impractical for anything other than runway strutting and gala mingling.” Claudia’s mother enjoys pestering her children in an attempt to impose her rather confused values. Claudia, her family and friends, provide comedy, pathos, and tension in and around the main storyline.
Pek excels at describing odd scenes like this one on Halloween. Claudia has positioned herself to spy on one of the profiles for Iris Lettriste, Jude Kalman [Captain Bubbles on the Soulmate dating app].
I ride up the West Side bike path under what feels like a freshly painted sky, the light clear and calm and golden, the asphalt ahead of me speckled with tiny leaves. (Also the occasional lump of dead rat.) Jude is still in his building when I reach Columbus Avenue and Seventy-Fourth Street. His block is avid with lightsabers and swirly capes, glitter and spandex and face paint, furry onesies. I stand outside the Starbucks where I held my stakeout and watch all the high-functioning dual-parent family units perambulate by. There’s a lot of exclaiming by the adults over how adorable one another’s children are, and even more frenzied prancing about by those children, who have probably maxed out their sugar intake for the year. Tolstoy’s maxim that happy families are all alike appears to have some merit as far as their kids’ Halloween costumes go. They favor the superheroes and princesses, and monsters as well, of the cuddly variety. I always wonder if parents with bratty kids get a kick out of being able to dress them up as beasts once a year.
Claudia is an avid reader of detective novels like Holmes, Poirot, Maigret and the fictional “Inspector Yuan” novels that appear throughout the novel. Claudia describes scenes by invoking famous authors—Jane Austin, Edith Wharton, Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Philip K. Dick, Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Homer. One of Claudia’s witty friends, Rina, dresses up as Schrödinger’s cat at a Halloween Party.
It’s not that I don’t find her cute. She has a very charming smile and clever Halloween costume ideas. When I asked what was up with that cardboard box, she told me she was Schrödinger’s cat, one iteration of it. She got a friend to dress up like her and they flipped a coin to see who would get to live.
Some may find such references scattered throughout the novel to be tedious. I find them entertaining. In another example Claudia’s supervisor speaks to Claudia’s roommate Max the artist about his work.
Becks says, “Max was telling me about his artistic process for Brief Encounters.” I realize the three of them are standing in front of the painting that hangs on the wall above the couch. It’s my favorite of Max’s literary portraits, Holly Golightly (a version that owes a debt to Audrey Hepburn, Most Beautiful Woman Ever) with Jay Gatsby. I’m starting to feel like the one character in a Marvel-DC crossover story line who knows the two worlds are supposed to be separate, except in this alternate combined universe everyone just thinks he’s crazy. Max says, “Becks had a brilliant suggestion. Anna Karenina and Ellen Olenska.” That is a good one. I wish I’d thought of that.
Claudia’s eclectic Chinese American family provides a constant backdrop of humor. For example, here is Claudia remembering herself as a child with her mother:
THERE AREN’T too many things my mother and I can bond over. Braised chicken feet. Poor hand-eye coordination. And Inspector Yuan. When I was a kid she would tell me highly abridged versions of those stories until I fell asleep, usually as she stood beside the bed ironing her clothes for work the next day. Really she deployed them as cannons to blast forth key Confucian values of filial piety, hard work, filial piety, honesty, and— oh, right— filial piety. Everyone who got killed had neglected their elderly mother or cheated her of a family heirloom, and each story ended with Inspector Yuan visiting his parents with gifts and thanking them for all the sacrifices they made for him.
In another scene Claudia arrives late for lunch on her bicycle:
As always I’m the second-to-last person to arrive at Golden Phoenix, befitting my role as the feckless youngest child of the Lin family. Charles and his girlfriend, Jessie, and our mother are already there, sitting side by side at one of the large round tables in the middle of the room. Charles is frowning down at his phone. Jessie is trying to make small talk with my mother, who is blatantly uninterested in anything she might have to say. Also befitting their roles.
“Hi Mom,” I say as I drop into a chair across from the three of them. I smile at Jessie, who looks at me the way the Spartan three hundred might have at reinforcements
making it to Thermopylae in time. She and Charles have been dating for the past several months, and Charles has recently started subjecting her to Lin family events. They matched on Bubble Meets Tea, an invitation-only matchmaker for overachieving Asian Americans. My primary impression of her so far is that she’s too nice for our family.
“Claudia,” says my mother. “You look very sweaty.”
“I feel very sweaty.” I tear open one of the individually wrapped towelettes that the restaurant puts on the table in lieu of napkins, thinking to wipe my face with it. It smells vaguely like toilet cleaner, which gives me pause.
“Don’t use that,” says my mother. “They will charge you for it. I have tissue.”
“Okay,” I say. I know if I try to point out that Golden Phoenix almost certainly adheres to a once-opened-considered-sold policy, like any sane retail establishment, she’ll just start explaining to me why it shouldn’t since this towelette hasn’t been touched and another customer can have it …
Our mother says, coming out of the Zen state she gets into when she’s peeling prawns, “Charlie, you work for a matchmaker?”
“Sort of,” he says. “But not, you know, like your friend Auntie Yi.”
“We’re not friends.” Our mother sounds offended. “We just pretend because we’re in the same mah-jongg group.”
“These matchmakers are what the industry calls relationship-management companies. They use technology to help people find romantic partners. Like providing a digital platform for people to meet and using data to predict whether two people will be compatible.”
“Mom is sixty-three,” I say, “not six hundred.”
“Sixty-two,” says Coraline.
Oops. “I was rounding up.”
“Your matchmaker, can you use it to help your sisters?”
My sister clacks her chopsticks down against the rim of her plate. Here we go. “What are you talking about? I have a boyfriend.”
Our mother says, “But he’s not here.”
“He had to help out a friend.”
“Friend is more important to him than family?”
“It’s not his family.”
“You don’t want us to be his family? Or he doesn’t want to be our family?”
“Neither! Mom, we’ve been dating for eleven months. It’s way too early to be talking about whether anyone wants to join anyone else’s family.”
Our mother says, and a part of me has to admire this conversational-jiujitsu master move, “But not too early to live like you’re married.”
“Why? Now he doesn’t have to marry you to get what he wants.”
“Maybe I don’t want to marry him.”
“Then you are wasting your time,” says our mother. “You are not getting younger.”
The Verifiers explores the popular modern match-making industry and that leads to a deeper dive into the implications of all the data collected on our lives over the Internet. It’s a good mystery story combined with some prescient thoughts on the risks and benefits of our modern technological society.
The author, Jane Pek, has this to say about herself:
I was born and grew up in Singapore. My debut novel The Verifiers was published by Vintage/Knopf in February 2022. The Verifiers was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, an Indie Next and LibraryReads pick, a Good Morning America recommendation, and a Phenomenal Book Club selection. My short fiction has been anthologized twice in The Best American Short Stories. I currently live in New York, where I work as a lawyer at a global investment company.
Some of the things I’m into: picking up different martial arts, reading coming-of-age novels, watching contemporary theatre, and cycling around the city in search of superlative almond croissants.
Four of Jane Pek’s short stories are available online (links provided below). The short stories are quite different from the novel but they give you a feel for Pek’s style and thought process. I hope you’re lucky enough to enjoy the stories and the novel together with a little vacation time this summer.
“Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist Circa Sixteenth Century)
People Who Look Like People I Know