This book wasn’t on my radar until Flavorwire talked about it a lot and piqued my interest. I do love a novel set on American university campuses, one recent favourite (The Art of Fielding) and one all time (The Secret History) both attest to that. So I was intrigued by this twisted take on the hoary old cliché of a student sleeping with her professor.
Regina Gottlieb is our narrator, beginning her graduate degree and quickly finding herself out of her depth with her English professor, Nicholas Brodeur. He has a reputation a mile wide and depending on who you listen to, it veers from skilful seducer to predatory date rapist. She is charmed into being his TA and here’s where we expect her to fall into bed with him, start a lusty affair which ultimately is the downfall of them both. They will be discovered, she will leave the university in shame, he will be fired and divorced. Right? Well, no. That’s the twist. And it’s a twist I’m about to ruin, so if you want to be disarmed by it, then stop reading this review now, and come back to it when you’ve read the book. Regina has a crazy, driven, passionate affair alright, but it’s with Brodeur’s wife Martha (surely a nod to the greatest campus wife of them all, no?).
The main issue I have here isn’t that lesbianism is about as erotic to me as knitting, it’s that Regina is incredibly tiresome. Leaving aside the destruction the affair causes, she is so painfully selfish and self centred that she really tested my patience. When they commence on their affair, naturally it must remain a secret, since Martha not only has a husband, she also has a newborn son. Regina doesn’t like this and Martha seems unable to say anything to her in those early days without it dissolving into an awful screaming row. During one of them, Martha yells at her to ask “does everything have to be so melodramatic?” to which I could only cry “amen, sister”.
The writing is beautiful, there’s no doubt about it. A lesser talented wordsmith wielding such painfully annoying characters would have had me giving up inside of 100 pages. Martha is revealed to be a sociopath, who ends the affair by sleeping with Regina’s best friend (an event you can see coming LONG before it arrives) and the fallout of that is probably supposed to make you feel sorry for Regina, but it just made me want to knife her all the more. The drawback to the dearth of likeable people in the book (there are some, but they are relegated to the sidelines) means that no matter how beautifully it’s written, it is very difficult to care. And when the final coupling, twenty years later, takes place, rather than it being a happy ending, I just felt they deserved each other.