How’s this for a challenge? Write a novel about virtual-reality gaming and high-school teaching, and make it a story that adults and kids will find hard to put down. In her new novel, Allegra Goodman creates suspense where you might least expect to find it.

Dial

Aidan is a teenager holed up in his bedroom, consumed at all hours by a multiplayer game called EverWhen, in which he is a Water Elf named Tildor. Collin, a college dropout, is a virtuosic artist whose remarkable chalk drawings land him a nearly round-the-clock job at Arkadia, the creator of EverWhen. And Nina—Collin’s girlfriend and the daughter of Arkadia’s owner—is a TeacherCorps recruit. Every day she walks into a classroom of students (Aidan among them) who could care less about Emerson, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, or Dickinson.

But Goodman, as deft a plot engineer as any game designer, makes sure her characters don’t stay trapped behind closed doors. She gives them unusual love travails to navigate. The other troubles they stumble into at home, school, and work also test them in ingenious ways. Goodman, like the best teachers, is intent on watching obsessive fantasies turn into imaginative determination. Readers will be too, pulled along by her protagonists’ quests, which are not to follow rules or slay dragons. The real goal is to face complicated selves.