Book review Monday: My Education, by Susan Choi
Susan Choi’s My Education is an enjoyable but often frustrating read. It’s enjoyable because Choi is a great writer with a keen understanding of complex human relationships, especially those relationships in which power dynamics are irredeemably skewed, but frustrating because of the maddeningly insecure and irritating main character, which, I suspect, was Choi’s intent. The book is about the frustration of loving someone more than he or she can love you back; so I suppose it makes sense that the reader should experience a similar sense of frustration while reading.
The book takes place at an unnamed Northeastern liberal arts college — there are references to gorges, so I’m guessing Cornell or its fictional clone — in which the main character, twenty-one year-old Regina Gottlieb, a grad student in English literature, becomes a teaching assistant to Nicholas Brodeur, a brilliant, enigmatic professor with a reputation for inappropriate contact with his undergraduate students. While working with Nicholas and his other teaching assistant at Nicholas’s grand house one afternoon, Regina comes into contact with Nicholas’s wife, Martha, a professor at the same university. Martha, who has just had a baby and is on maternity leave, instantly fascinates Regina, and soon after their first meeting, the two of them kiss at a dinner party. What happens from there is unexpected and quite dramatic: Regina and Martha embark upon a torrid affair, Regina becomes obsessed with Martha, things do not go as Regina had hoped, and Regina begins to throw her life away, piece by piece. Along the way, other people get involved, feelings are hurt, and several melodramatic gestures are made. I will keep my descriptions of the love triangles (and quadrangles) intentionally vague so as not to spoil the plot, but really, the main pairing the novel is concerned with is that between Martha and Regina.
What seems clear to the reader from the start is that this love affair between Martha and Regina is not going to work out. For one thing, Martha is still married to Nicholas. She has a baby, and a house, and a career. But more importantly, she is over a decade older than Regina and in a completely different stage of life. She has responsibilities. She understands what is realistic and what is not. Regina, on the other hand, is blindsided by her love for Martha, and will do nearly anything to keep her. Regina’s desperate longing for Martha reads as grasping, naive, and immature. We, as readers with some remove on the situation, can see how farfetched it would be for Martha, a married professor with a child to raise, to run off, permanently, with a twenty-one year-old girl, but Regina can’t see this. Choi does a fantastic job of conveying Regina’s frustration with Martha’s inability to return Regina’s feelings of uncomplicated love and loyalty. Regina thinks that she and Martha are fated to be together; Martha thinks of Regina as a thrilling — but ultimately short lived — sexual fling. This disconnect, this failure to see the relationship in the same terms, becomes the central tension of the novel.
Any amount of time later I’d far better understand what at that time I barely understood at all, though Martha might have approved of my incorrect, seafaring view of our progress: sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it, but always forward. She might have approved, in her maritime way, but she would have been equally wrong. We weren’t zigzagging forward but wildly seesawing, the ups ever higher, the downs ever lower, our fulcrum nailed smartly in place. Martha’s flights of hedonism — Martha’s brooding resolutions and remorse. Martha’s desire — Martha’s duty. I’d like to say I defied gravity just as often as feeling its snare, but my efforts were more likely spent clinging on with white knuckles to not be dislodged. Still, that was my heroism — my tenacious fidelity to her, though it was based on a grave misperception. I thought desire was duty. No trial could not be endured nor impediment smashed in desire’s holy service, or so I believed, with naive righteousness. I didn’t grasp that desire and duty could rival each other, least of all that they most often do.
Regina wants Martha to acquiesce, to say out loud that they will be together, that they are the loves of each other’s lives, but Martha can’t do this. Martha constantly reminds Regina of her responsibilities, especially as a mother. Regina, meanwhile, feels as if Martha uses her duties as a mother and wife as a weapon to make Regina feel unimportant, to convey to her that her opinions or desires do not count as much because she is young and unencumbered. Regina can’t understand why Martha can’t throw everything away for the sake of pursuing love.
Years later, of course, Regina gains some perspective on her relationship with Martha. She narrates the story when she herself is a married mother, and now understands intimately the demands that were on Martha back when they undertook their affair:
Again I thought of Martha, and her very imperfect example of motherhood. And, though I might have expected to judge her more harshly, I found myself forgiving her instead, for those countless superiorities of hers, by which I’d felt crushed, which she turned out to have never possessed. She had not been infallible. The realization was melancholy instead of triumphant, and I remembered my confusion, a few years before, when I’d found myself having lunch in Manhattan at the same restaurant where amid untold glamour she’d treated me to my first oysters. The intervening decade alone could not have accounted for how small and out of style and even shabby it had somehow become.
One can be fooled into thinking the grown-up Regina has matured completely and left her old, desperate self behind; however, in the very last scenes of the book, Regina does something that made me question whether she learned anything from her disastrous affair with Martha, at all. Overall, My Education was a satisfying read, despite the ending, which felt pat, unrealistic, and deeply unsatisfying. I was frustrated that the character made the choices she made; but really, I was frustrated with Regina’s decision-making throughout the novel, so perhaps the ending is merely in keeping with who Regina fundamentally is, as a person.
I would recommend this novel for fans of university-based fiction and those who enjoy quiet, emotion-driven drama. There are no big twists, turns, or surprises here, but it is packed with emotionally resonant storytelling.