Of the books I read in the past year, Susan Choi’s My Education is my favorite. It is a brilliant book, with vibrant language, smart observations, and fantastic characters. The novel is simple to sum up: I described it to my sister-in-law as a novel about an English graduate student who becomes involved in a love quadrangle.
The plot and story moves apace, but the madcap events only highlights and not overwhelms. In the end, the characters ingratiate into your mind. Even if you know what will happen, I guarantee you still want to see the train wreck through. Because I don’t think I can contain myself; I need to talk about this book with you. I need to give you a
** SPOILER ALERT. **
It won’t make sense until you read it, but although the story is narrated by Regina Gottlieb, I was left with the feeling that she plays an ancillary role in this story – well, more like how Rick and Ilsa were a sidenote to Victor and Ilsa’s heroic story. I think, if this were a modern Hollywood movie, it would be more about Martha and Dutra; there’s a chance that if old Hollywood did this movie, it would feel more like Casablanca than not.
OK, so that’s three characters. The last is Nicholas, Martha’s husband and Regina’s erstwhile mentor. Regina feared being despoiled by Nicholas, but she falls into lust with Martha. I really wanted to avoid saying anything about plot and characters and relationships, but it is hard. Sure, there are enough deviations from the usual plot points such that it’s a pleasant surprise. But, the point of this novel is in Regina’s narration: her observations, thoughts, and growth.
Here’s the straight-forward description. Regina starts graduate school, rooming with Dutra, who becomes her lover, then her friend. There’s much gossip about Nicholas, the handsome English professor who had been rumored to have an “understanding” with his wife and is notorious in having had a string of affairs with his (graduate) students (because it would have been wrong if it were with an undergraduate.) Regina is complicated; she deals a lot with the superficial thinking and cognition about how she will act towards Nicholas. She is on her guard. Ms. Choi then deftly does a magic trick – the kind that will win you money; part three-card monte and part dealing from the bottom of the deck – all of a sudden, we see the undercurrent of Regina’s glimpses of Martha – her thoughts on what it’s like to be the wife of a philanderer, beautiful, a mother, a professor, and a woman who seemingly had turned her back on what should have been the ultra-posh exemplar of a modern, post-feminist woman – turn into an undertow. We are dragged under and when we surface, we see that we are far from shore and everything has changed. Regina was wary of Nicholas, wondering about his home-life and his relationship with Martha, showing peripheral interest in the inner life of Martha. But of course, Regina was not only convincing us of her sincerity in navigating through the Scylla and Charibdis that is Nicholas’s and Martha’s marriage – perhaps worrying about her immediate goal of finishing graduate school – but for herself as well. Her real interest was Martha. When we snap awake from the mesmerizing card dealing of Ms. Choi, and look at the hand we were dealt, we find that Regina had seduced Martha at the end of a rather uncomfortable dinner party. That’s only the half of it, though; Martha reciprocates.
I think this structure is needed; the novel is constructed in a way that speaks to my scientist heart. It is like a thought experiment where, by removing men – or lowering their coefficients from the relationship equation, we can focus more on the psychic fallout and less on the usual older man-mentor/younger woman. Sure, there is still a power dynamic, but somehow, the fact that they are both women at different stages of their lives give more credibility to this being an exploration of how one approaches a relationship, not just predation on youth.
Martha is probably what Regina wishes to be: a successful academic, about to embark on motherhood her own terms – at least until Regina sees more of Martha’s life. Consummation does not happen right away. In this, Ms. Choi wrote it straight, with an inevitability that both women decide to invest time and passion into the relationship. There is a bit of repartee, a low grade flirt, quick meetings and chats, until lust comes to fore.
After the relationship is consummated, we truly embark on the story, with its attendant criticisms about age and relationship. As I noted, Regina narrates, but it is her older self telling the story. As such, she is able to be generous, neither treating Martha too harshly – although she really should have known better – nor dismissing this time in her life as a passing fancy. This is a proper way of drawing out observations; we do not dismiss her love of Martha as a crush. Taken seriously, we are forced to deal with Regina actually trying to make this relationship work. What she lacks in perspective and experience, she overwhelms with passion. That is in fact the sharp division between Regina and Martha: the young offer passion, while the old, or older, offer time. To the young, the relationship is life. To the old, the relationship is an escape from life.
Dutra eventually takes more prominence in the story. He remains friends with Regina after they stop dating; he is a good friend and is a sounding board for her feelings. Not that Regina needed any help on that. The internal monologue is amazing. I will probably name five different favorite things about this book, but this is truly the best part about the novel. Imagine the way an Aaron Sorkin character would speak – sharp, smart, verbal deluge – with the neuroses and self-awareness of a Dawson’s Creek teenager. That’s Regina in a nutshell.
At some point, we become aware that Martha essentially sets up a little lovenest. Like I say, this story would have taken on a completely different complexion if it were Nicholas instead of Martha having an affair. Martha becomes the embodiment of an escape fantasy; she teaches, writes, act as hostess for faculty dinners, and mothers. It is understandable that she might have her own issues and needs a release valve. But that is not entirely it. She does like Regina. The dramatic question becomes, is she serious enough about this relationship? She does separate from Nicholas, although the marriage was already rocky without another person entering into it. But will she take the next step?
Martha insinuates herself into the off-campus life of Regina. She gives up her graduate career, deciding that she needs to grow up and get a job, in the real world. Dutra, Martha, and Regina have great hangs; this is another bit of magic on Ms. Choi’s: what are Dutra’s feelings? Is this a love see-saw whose fulcrum is Regina? One night, the three of them are drunk and wind up in Regina’s apartment. Martha and Regina grow intimate. The last thing Regina hears is Dutra thumping down the stairs. This point remains ambiguous until the end, although there are signs that the fulcrum might actually be Martha.
Young Regina refuses to accept that Martha might have other reasons for keeping the relationship on the down low. She does not understand why Martha can’t walk away and take the plunge. A series of misunderstandings and mis-timings ensue. Lost dinners and coming out opportunities give way to dissatisfaction. Pledges are re-avowed and promises made; all are broken. At one point, Casper, at that time a graduate student, forced an unhappy Regina to introduce him to his idol, Nicholas. This was after Nicholas had found out Martha and Regina were lovers. What follows is a bender where Nicholas, Regina, and two other faculty members are essentially drowning their sorrows over women troubles, capped by Regina blacking out, shepherded home by Nicholas and missing what should have been a declaration of her relationship with Martha. Well, it didn’t help that Regina suffered from a concussion at the time. Like I said, this book is a bit madcap.
Shortly after, Martha and Regina’s relationship seemed salvageable, as Martha was obviously in distress that she might have been spurned. This culminates in a disastrous night, at what should have been a resolution: Martha will publicly acknowledge her relationship with Regina. But Martha turns perfidious; she whiles her time away at pool with Dutra, until she misses the party. Then she sleeps with Dutra, leaving him apologetic and rushing to Regina to apologize. Regina, to her credit, shuts the door on him, on Martha and on the relationship.
A few other things happen; we do find out that Nicholas had designs on her. We actually find out how much Regina meant to Martha, and to Ms. Choi’s credit there are no weepy subsequent confrontations. Years later, we pick up Regina’s life in Brooklyn, married, a published author, and mother. We see some resolution with Dutra. I don’t do it justice here, but he is an outsized character in the story. Funny, charming, and a real rake. We do find out what happened to Martha and Nicholas.
As the older Regina, the narration loses none of the urgency if youth, if the passion becomes tempered. Romantic ardor is nothing compared to motherhood. Now we see a mature Regina tackle marriage, with that same awareness and intelligence with which she dissected her youth.
Did I say already this is my favorite book that I have read, going back to last year? There is a lot of profanity – not in words but in ideas – sex, and insight. I felt entertained and that I learned something substantial about relationships and how women think. The language crackles, and I hurtled into the book in the same manner that Regina loved Martha.