For some reason, I found myself thinking about the view of the golf course out of the bay windows at Milton View. How I’d stared at it for eighteen years, yearning for a bigger world to live in, thinking I could find it through books, clawing at make-believe in the hope I’d draw blood. Dear God, I thought with a sudden shiver. Was this the “real world” I’d been trying to find?
the name-drops to donna tartt and muriel spark are great bait, as though i needed any bait to read a campus novel about obsession with charismatic and unstable figures, betrayal, and tragic seeeecrets. this is not a thriller; it’s a slowly-building character-driven narrative whose dramatic happenings are on a somewhat smaller scale than The Secret History and whose emphasis is more upon the shifting interpersonal dynamics of its characters than on its mystery angle.
the set-up is very conventional for a book of this genre: jess is an eighteen-year-old girl with personal and academic ambitions, desperate to escape her banal middle-class hometown of milton view, norfolk, where “everything ugly or interesting was edited out,” and to avoid turning into her quietly unfulfilled parents.
For the most part, my parents seemed to me neither noticeably happy nor unhappy, but behaved with each other much as many of my friends’ parents behaved: like two adults without much in common who happened to be thrown together on a long car journey. Drawn-out conversations about logistics, silences filled by the welcome distraction of other voices on the radio, and the recurrent niggle that things would be better if they had taken a slightly different route.
beguiled by a book of literary criticism called The Truants by dr. lorna clay, she enrolls in the university of east anglia to study under this woman she so admires, ending up in lorna’s agatha christie seminar, “Murdered by the Campus.”
once there, she quickly befriends georgie—a buxom socialite as careless and wealthy as any fitzgerald character, whose excesses in both drugs and alcohol pair well with her equally dramatic emotional excesses. georgie begins dating alec—a hearse-driving south african post-grad journalist whose work frequently puts him in dangerous situations. jess mistrusts him as much as she is intrigued by him, even as she begins dating geology-student nick, and the four become surface-level inseparable, despite all the cracks in the foundation of their friendship.
lorna’s teaching style is one that blurs the boundaries between classroom and personal space—a practice which forced her to leave her last position, the details of which are murky and scandalously titillating. lorna sees something in jess’ raw clay, or in her naked adoration of her, that is appealing enough to befriend and mentor her, intensifying jess’ covetous regard.
bad things happen, as they must, as jess is led into the selfish irresponsibility of youthful folly, and when everything begins falling apart, lorna shuttles jess away to her italian-island hideaway, where many shattering seeeecrets will come out.
this is a coming-of-age story about consequences, pedestal syndrome, and the loss of illusions. jess is the narrator, looking back over these experiences six years later, and as such, it is her story and her insights, even though she is the least interesting character in the book—although nick’s ‘you are what you study’ emotional rock-steadiness is also pretty undramatic.
compared to the magnetic personalities of lorna, georgie, and alec, jess is an emotionally immature blank slate; a quiet observer just starting to come into her own; test-driving her emerging self in the shadowy proximity of these larger-than-life personalities upon whom she is pinning her unhealthy fascinations. others see more depth and promise in her than the reader encounters on the page, which might be down to her self-effacement and insecurity in the thrall of more grandiose personalities. her role here is almost voyeuristic in nature, a position made literal by her first encounter with nick—making eye contact with him as he intercourses a woman who is not georgie in the back of his hearse, but continues in figurative echoes throughout—a girl attracted to confident, charismatic people, an outsider yearning to be what they are, watching and admiring, blind to the flaws beneath their shine.
weinberg writes about this tender developmental stage beautifully—all the testing of wings, pushing of boundaries, the self-destructive habits of newly felt independence, the vitality of college friendships and the manifestations of love in all its different forms. there are so many great lines here; she captures the pain of heartbreak perfectly—not just the icepick immediacy of one’s own personal heartbreak, but also in a more academic remove, during a lecture about christie’s mysterious eleven-day disappearance after learning of her husband’s infidelity:
”The whole country was looking for her. Five hundred police officers and fifteen thousand volunteers. But what she wanted, desperately, was the attention of one person.” Lorna looked at us, her eyes very shiny. “Agatha wasn’t breaking down or seeking revenge. She just wanted him to be thinking about her. All the time, like he used to.”
as far as campus novels go, and i’ve read more than a few, this one may be less flashy than many, but it’s a point in its favor that it’s not trying to be a The Secret History reworking. it has a quiet intensity that i found compelling, and it is an excellent, very promising, debut.