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In A Campus-Bound Novel, A Thrilling, 'Educational' Affair
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In A Campus-Bound Novel, A Thrilling, 'Educational' Affair

Book Reviews


Author Susan Choi didn't set out to write an erotic novel. She recently told NPR that she wanted her new book to be about being young and making mistakes. The book she ended up with is about an affair between a student and her professor's wife. Meg Wolitzer has our review.

MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: As soon as I hear that a novel is set in a college or university, I'm in. I love that warm, intense, cozy, but cerebral feeling you get from reading about a campus where you know the whole cast of characters from the beginning and where the drama will play out. Of course, the flip side is that academic novels can be treacherous, too.

Professors try to undermine each other's bid for tenure. There's gossip and sabotage and, occasionally, think Donna Tartt, murder. Susan Choi's fantastic new novel, "My Education" is one of these books. It's set in and around the university, but she pushes the form. There's barely any classroom action. This book isn't cozy. It's thrilling.

Choi's narrator is Regina Gottlieb. She's just started grad school and her mentor is Professor Nicholas Brodeur. He is, of course, gorgeous with a reputation as a student-seducer, one of those cool people who walk among us. But cooler still is Nicholas' wife, Martha. She's blond and pregnant and naturally, even more gorgeous than her husband.

Regina is instantly attracted to her. By the time these two finally do begin an affair, Martha is a new mother with a difficult marriage, a big house and a hostile nanny. Regina sets the whole delicate thing on fire. Writing about sex can be a trap for a novelist. If you're not actually writing to excite or to jump onto the "Fifty Shades Of Grey" zillion-dollar bandwagon, why do it unless you've got a good reason?

There's a limited vocabulary of body parts and what's left to say about them, really? But Susan Choi has a very good reason. She uses these scenes to show us something essential about Regina, how she's willing to trash everything for this relationship. It becomes so consuming that she forgets to hide it. Everyone on campus knows. She even drops out of grad school because she's interested only in Martha.

"My Education" is an academic novel married to a novel of obsession. It's almost too pleasurable to contemplate. If it has one flaw, it comes in the last act. The story has jumped about 15 years into the future and it partly concerns a friend of Regina's from grad school. But even in this relatively weaker section of the book, the writing never falters and I was never bored.

This book's language is masterful, but it did something to me, too. I felt like I was in an obsessive relationship with it. I wanted to read it all the time. And at the end of that relationship, I found myself a little bit lost. And it wasn't only the story, the characters, or their passion. It was the excitement of reading work that reminds you, actually educates you, about the power of a really good novel.

CORNISH: The book is called "My Education" by Susan Choi. Our reviewer is Meg Wolitzer. Her latest novel is "The Interestings." And for updates on books and authors throughout the day, you can like NPR Books on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at NPRBooks.

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