Susan Choi is known for novels centered around what’s been called “the American experience”: moments or events in contemporary history that are familiar to all. One of her previous books, A Person of Interest, was about an Asian-born academic suspected of Unabomber-like activity; another, American Woman, was a fictionalized account of the Patty Hearst kidnapping. My Education, her latest novel, just out from Viking, is a departure in that it doesn’t have an event tie-in, unless it’s meant as a comment on a rampant and particularly contemporary sort of narcissism. Set at a Cornell-like upstate university, the education of the title is Regina Gottlieb’s, the book’s narrator, and refers less to an academic education than to one that is sexual and emotional.
A first-year graduate student, Regina has a housemate, Dan Dutra; she TAs for the charismatic, attractive professor Nicholas Brodeur; and gets to know his charismatic, attractive wife Martha. Everyone sleeps with almost everyone here, and they mostly pay little heed to the effects of their actions on anybody else.
At a dinner party hosted by Nicholas and Martha at which Martha is unable to produce a meal, though her domestic skills come highly touted, (“You know she once cooked professionally…she can cook you a multicourse meal with no more than a fire and a large size tin can. The first time I went to their house it was summer and Martha had constructed a fire pit… in their backyard and she served clams casino, a wild mushroom pizza, whole lobsters, a corn salad and…a peach pie, all without setting foot in her kitchen.”) Yet, the night of the dinner party finds Martha undone “amid a chaos of plastic bowls, plastic cups, plastic spoons, seltzer bottles, crumpled bags, takeout menus, dirty pots and incompletely unpacked sacks of groceries occupying every inch of the yards and yards of deep counter space, and the central island and even avalanching here and there onto the black and white tiles of the floor.” Perhaps she should stick to cooking outside.
Martha manages to serve her guests only soup and stale bread which she rips off in hunks and tosses at them. There are chickens too, which one of the guests runs out to buy.
Nevertheless, this is the person who’s inflamed Regina’s passions—why is unclear. “All women are powerfully affected by examples of beauty among their own kind,” Regina says, as a kind of blanket permission for herself. “Those who claim they can’t appraise another woman’s allure because they’re of the same sex are embarrassed, or lying.” I’ve never heard any woman deny that appraisal, part competitive instinct, part biological imperative. But Regina decides the next step is appetite, recognizes it in herself and right there, right then, acts on it.
Perhaps Choi means to upend the conventional academic sexual scenario—older charismatic professor, young nubile student (oh wait; Nicholas is an older charismatic professor and billed as a bedpost-notching kind of guy). Perhaps we’re meant to just believe in the headlong rush into love or lust, but it didn’t feel credible to me. Regina is only 21, yet she is intimidated by nothing and cowed by no one, apparently able to rent an apartment and drink constantly with no perceptible income or financial support, and in the sexual contact between Martha and herself, Regina is the aggressor.
“I took hold of the hot, perspiration-damp slope of the nape of her neck, and raised my chin slightly and drew her towards me…and we bloomed smoothly out of our skins as if some gorgeous fruit that aspires to devour itself. Her answering kiss was unstinting; it excavated me down to my bowels, and I uttered a long sussuration…all this while our mouths fed on each other, their sameness so shocking as to be somehow sweetly inevitable, and for all the urgent thunder the length of our veins I knew we stood there almost silently, gently entwined.”
This treads fairly close to the heaving and cleaving of romance fiction to me, but more important, it wasn’t convincing. Heat doesn’t rise off the page here, and it has to: to credit this affair, these two people, unmatched in age and experience who can’t keep their hands off each other, though a marriage, a friendship, and a graduate career are destroyed in the process, the descriptions of sex have to be incandescent—and they’re not. The sex scenes start at the top of the chart and stay there. There isn’t any build. Sex is not the battleground here—relationship expectations are. Regina sees no reason she and Martha can’t stay together forever; Martha does, though the primary one seems to be she really doesn’t want to. It’s just an infatuation, just physical, though it knocks down everything—and everyone—in its path.
What Choi does very well though, and what makes the characters three dimensional—is dialogue. It’s perfectly pitched and transcends the overworked descriptions, sentences that are often dense and unnecessarily serpentine, the repetition of favorite words and constructions. The dialogue sings.
The descriptions of place are also very good, vivid and memorable, and there are more than a few places to describe—apartments and houses (inside and out), bars, three different geographical settings governed by different weather. Nicholas’ apartment: “Enormous squares of art fenestrated the walls, each piece an oblique reminder of the styles I remembered him loving, the unelaborated Inuit whalebone figurines, and Mondrian’s bright demarcations, and Friedrich’s humbling fields of ice. On the walls that were not hung with art stood cliff-faces of well-ordered books, housed in beautifully joined, off-white bookcases, not heaped in man-high stalagmites on the floor. The expanses of cream-colored carpet were unworn and unstained, the solitude thriving and orderly.”
But the descriptions of other things can be long, clotted and slow. A descriptive section may veer off onto a tangent, then veer again while the reader waits for the action to resume. Regina’s housemate Dutra “drove a very old, very damaged Volvo sedan the color of calamine lotion where it wasn’t afflicted by rust.” (Which would be a really good, visual description if that’s all there was. It isn’t.) “The car was so barely distinguishable from the countless other aged, rusted, neutral-toned Volvo sedans living out their last days in that town it might have been part of a utopian experiment of ubiquitous, ownerless cars, as with bicycles in some parts of Europe and indeed even here, in the seventies, when the university had apparently paid for a fleet of bicycles for public use on the campus, all of which had wound up within just a few days abandoned on the base of the hill.” That paragraph continues for well over a page.
A lot of what happens here feels unearned. Choi keeps a tight hold of the action, it all feels minutely planned, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The ending, in particular (the first 200+ pages of the book take place in 1992, the last 80 or so in 2007) a kind of where-are-they-now coda that catches us up on Regina’s life (writer of books that manage to be both highly lucrative and approved of by intellectuals, and a wife and mother to a little boy, Lion, a name no one ever comments on) as well as Dutra, Martha and Nicholas, all of whom are, literally, revisited. Growth seems implied by the passage of time and the acquisition, on Regina’s part, of elements that constitute adulthood—career success, husband, child—more than earned.
Emotional growth is implied too in the way Regina responds to a mutual friend’s request that she make sure Dutra, her long-ago housemate, is okay. Sure, no problem. She’s going out to California anyway. To see Martha.
It’s not clear how Choi means us to perceive Regina’s actions at the end of the book. Are they generous? The actions an essentially selfish, self-involved person perceives as generous? Or purely self-motivated? Has Regina’s education turned her into a better, more successful version of Martha, possessing the enviable husband, career, son, and home Martha did at the beginning but has given up?
This book, filled with mostly unlikeable characters and endless descriptions, wasn’t easy to like. What feels unsuccessful about it, though, doesn’t take into account its almost compulsive readability. Driven by excellent dialogue, it might not have been easy to like, but it was hard to put down.