I’m playing with emphasis in my review of Susan Choi’s latest book, My Education. Spend a moment over at Goodreads and you’ll quickly discover what elements of the story I’m skimming over but I figure that if the publisher doesn’t reveal much in the blurb, then it’s not up to me to do it for them.
My Education begins with graduate student, Regina Gottlieb, encountering the notorious Professor Nicholas Brodeur for the first time. Brodeur has a reputation for seducing undergraduates and his appeal is obvious to Regina –
“That first time seeing him, even before being sure who he was, it was already clear that his attractiveness was mixed up with a great deal of ridiculousness. He wore a long duster coat, in the heat of September. His filthy blond hair stuck up and out in thatchy spikes from heavy use of some kind of pomade, as if it were 1982, not ’92, and he wore Lennon shades with completely black lenses, as if it were outdoors, not in, and overall, in his resemblance to a Joy Division poster, he comported himself as if twenty and not, as I’d come to find out, almost forty.”
But no one had warned Regina about Brodeur’s equally charismatic and volatile wife, Martha. And so unfolds the story of Regina’s mistakes, which demonstrate what happens when you’re forced to trade-off desire and duty.
“Regina, I don’t have problems in my marriage because of you. I have you because of problems in my marriage.”
The story is told in two distinct parts – firstly, Regina’s time at university when her affairs and drinking are at an all-time high and control of her life is at an all-time low. And then Choi fast-forwards to 2007, when Regina has ‘settled’ and in possession of a husband, a baby and a career.
I’m undecided as to whether plonking these two vastly different parts of the story together is brilliant or simply doesn’t work. On one hand, I found the change of pace and Regina’s dramatically different circumstances too great a leap and yet on the other hand, I suspect it was a divisive way of forcing the reader to contrast Regina as a mother and a middle-aged woman with Martha as a mother and a middle-aged woman – and the result of that comparison is interesting.
Sections of the book are quite steamy (although I will scream if I read comparisons with Fifty Shades….). The sex scenes shouldn’t distract you from the exceptionally good passages in My Education. Choi is perceptive and her observations are lavishly woven into the text, whether they be about vaginas, dishwashers or sleeping babies –
“It was hot and moist there, and redolent with human smells, steam fogging the mullioned windows where it had risen from the great maw of the gleaming dishwasher, its unhinged jaws bristling with fresh-boiled stemware and forks, and from a large saucepan, agitating its lid on the stove.”
“On the drive back, Joachim fell asleep. Little by little his face had grown jowly and skeptical, cheeks and lids drooping down while the translucent eyebrows struggled upward in failed counteraction. The thread snipped while my eyes were turned back to the road. The next time I looked the dark fringe of his lashes, like wee Spanish fans, had been spread. One cheek was flat on the edge of his Swedish restraint, squashing the small rosebud mouth slightly open…”
Mention must be made of the character of Dan Dutra – Regina’s housemate and friend. Dutra is brilliantly rendered and without question, one of the most compelling characters I’ve come across in a very long time. It’s hard to pinpoint his appeal, short of saying that he is incredibly smart, funny, uncouth (in an endearing way) and most importantly, quietly caring and protective.
3/5 I’m pretty sure that this will be one of those books that the more I think about, the cleverer it will seem.
My Education is all about drinking – whiskey, wine and beer. But I did like a particular passage about lemon curd and there is nothing better than Stephanie Alexander’s lemon curd recipe.
“…slick and metallic tartness I forever connected with lemon curd licked off a spoon.”