As soon as I hear that a novel is set in a college or a university, I’m in. David Lodge, Richard Russo, Donna Tartt, Chad Harbach — they’ve all created campuses with an intimate, sometimes cozy feeling that offers an escape from a world that can seem terribly open-gated and impersonal. Like an Agatha Christie novel, you know right away who the characters are and where the drama will play out.
Of course, the flip side to all that intimacy is that what goes on in the academic novel can be treacherous too, if you consider people trying to undermine each other’s bid for tenure a kind of treachery (and then, of course, there’s Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which actually veers into murder). But that’s not all of it. How can people get through those long academic winters in those underheated houses and dorms? It’s no surprise that sex usually plays a part in these books, too.
Susan Choi’s fantastic new novel, My Education, can be roughly described as an academic novel, but it pushes the form and makes it thrilling, not cozy. Her narrator, Regina Gottlieb, is a graduate student at a university when she encounters Professor Nicholas Brodeur, who’s gorgeous and has a reputation as a dangerous student-seducer. He’s one of those cool people who walk among us, and to a certain extent, the very young and attractive Regina is too.
But the coolest one of all is Brodeur’s wife, Martha, who’s blond and gorgeous, and, the first time Regina sees her, pregnant and very angry. Regina is completely and overwhelmingly attracted to Martha: “Like almost any woman,” she says, “I had extensive experience of idolatrous attraction to beautiful women, dating roughly from the tender age of six, but these love affairs were a form of fantastical self-transformation; they belonged to imagination, not the pragmatic realm of appetite … That was the thing I had recognized here: appetite.” By the first kiss in the Brodeurs’ solarium at one of those academic-novel drunken and stoned evening parties, Martha has become a new mother with a difficult marriage, a hostile nanny, and a huge and imposing house. Regina’s impulsive kiss sets the whole delicate thing on fire.
Writing about sex can be a trap for a novelist. Unless you’re writing specifically to excite, or to jump onto the Fifty Shades of Grey zillion-dollar bandwagon, why do it unless you have a very good reason? And, more to the point, what’s left to say, anyway? On the surface, there’s a limited vocabulary of body parts — a small tool kit, in a way — and the temptation to use the word “moan.” But Susan Choi has a very good reason. She uses sex here to illustrate the headlong way her narrator is willing to trash everything else to keep this relationship alive.
The novel begins in 1992, and by the time it’s over, 15 years have passed. The long first section, which describes the sexual relationship between the two women, is mostly the “education” of the title. So consuming is this relationship to Regina that she indiscreetly allows everyone on campus and in town to know about it, and even finally drops out of grad school. Being with Martha is the most absorbing thing she’s experienced. And it’s hard for her to process that fact that Martha — older, wiser, less new to everything, more aware of what relationships take out of you, and what finally happens in them — doesn’t feel things at the same pitch.
The academic novel married to the novel of obsession is almost too pleasurable to contemplate, but that’s what this book is. It’s like caramel plus salt, that current snack food trend. And I bring up snack food here because My Education is an addicting read, and the same is not true, I don’t think, for any of David Lodge’s charming novels, as much as I always enjoyed them. But I don’t mean to say that this book is light; it isn’t. It’s dark and moody and intense.
When, finally, the narrative jumps forward to the year 2007, everything has changed, and the sadness is profound. As a reader, I never want characters to get older, to leave behind the excitement and excesses of youth, even though I realize that aging can make a book a lot richer. At first I was resistant to this later section. Where was the wild-eyed gasping I’ve come to expect? It’s not here. Instead there’s a lot of emphasis on Regina’s old friend and former roommate from grad school, Daniel Dutra. He’s a sort of over-the-top character, a renegade surgeon with a series of improbable relationships with women. His storyline is the book’s weakest thread, though even here the writing never falters, and I was never bored.
Susan Choi’s novel American Woman was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She’s an extremely confident writer, and in My Education she beautifully explores the way a young person tries, and often fails, to navigate her budding and intersecting sexual, intellectual and emotional lives. The writing in this novel is masterful — but the book did something to me emotionally, too. I felt like I was in an obsessive relationship with it. I wanted to read it all the time. And it wasn’t only the story, or the characters, or their passion. It was the excitement of reading a writer whose work reminds you — actually educates you — about the power of a really good novel.