I picked up You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik because I read an article about the controversy surrounding the author – and I love a bit of hoo-ha over an author or book, it always adds interesting context (see previous post about Ayelet Waldman).
You Deserve Nothing is set in an international high school in Paris and is told in three voices: that of Will, a charismatic young teacher who brings ideas alive in the classroom in a way that profoundly affects his students; Gilad, one of Will’s students who has grown up behind compound walls in places like Dakar and Dubai; and Marie, the beautiful, vulnerable senior with whom, unbeknownst to Gilad, Will is having an illicit affair. Check out the (slightly schmaltzy) promo clip below – it has some nice quotes from the book.
The topic of the story (a teacher/student affair) is hardly new but the taboo means it’s always going to be interesting. I think it also grabs people simply because as students, many people have had a ‘teacher crush’. The precise detail that interests me in any student/teacher story is how the first move is made. That sounded a little voyeuristic, didn’t it?! But it’s one thing to flirt across the classroom and another thing to lay hands on each other.
“I couldn’t remember her name. She smiled without hesitation, without artifice or experiment. Marie.”
Maksik’s writing is very fine – witty, observant but not over the top. Superb detail, with an emphasis on emotions, is maintained equally across the three central characters.
Will’s senior literature class is used to give context to what is happening in the lives of himself, Gilad and Marie –
“I stand in my window looking out, feeling the summer expanding in front of me. That familiar sense of freedom, a feeling inextricably linked to childhood, to having once been a student myself – released.”
“I read the way you read when you’re young. I believed that everything had been written for me, that what I saw, felt, learnt, was discovery all my own.”
I found the classroom scenes a little tiresome – lots of references to literature and philosophy was all a bit ‘Dead Poet’s’ for me – was Maksik just showing-off in these bits? I think so.
Ultimately, it’s the musings on infatuation and love from various points of view that linger (sometimes uncomfortably).
“I would fight for him and against anyone who wouldn’t. It wasn’t complicated. In the beginning love never is.”
“Cowards spend their lives alone. Either with people who can’t hurt them, or with no one at all. Either way, man. Same thing.”
I won’t give specifics on the ending but really, these stories only go one way, don’t they? Needless to say, the ending was unsurprising.
“People think teachers are easily replaced,” she said. “But that’s only true of the bad ones.”
Now that I’ve said all off that, make sure you read the article about Maksik that sparked my initial interest in the book. The New York Times praised Maksik for his “moral ambiguity” and his refusal to give readers a “more satisfying moral or resolution than the one provided.”
As to whether I would feel differently about this book if it was a memoir rather than fiction? That’s a question I’ll be pondering for quite some time.
Read this book armed with a darn good pain au chocolat.
4/5 – the story-line may have been done before that doesn’t mean it’s not compelling.