Beautiful People Behaving Badly & Susan Choi’s My Education

Love, like a blacksmith, struck me with a hammer, then plunged me in a wintry torrent.–Anacreon, 413

My-EducationIn Susan Choi’s elegant new novel, My Education, beautiful people behave badly.  A stunning woman devastates the lives of three characters who are  far from guiltless, but suffer disproportionately.

The narrator, Regina Gottlieb, a brilliant graduate student in English, is astounded by the beauty of Nicholas Broduer, an English professor who has been (falsely) accused of sexual harassment.  When Regina, baffled by his seminar, goes to his office, the reader wonders if she will seduce him.

She does not.

Nicholas is charming and recruits her as a T.A. for his Chaucer class:   though she has never read Chaucer, she is quick-witted. Her fellow T.A., the endearing Laurence, explains how little she needs to know to grade undergraduate papers.  Later, the three spend a quiet day together at Nicholas’ house, eating, drinking, and grading.  The highly organized Nicholas gives Regina all the data and tips she needs to  grade each paper in five minutes. (Sometimes she falls a little behind.)

Later, when Laurence and Regina are invited to a dinner party given by Nicholas and his wife Martha, Laurence tells her about Martha.

She’s very intrepid, Martha.  She lived on Madagascar for a year for some reason, and learned to cook something in a can.  Truly–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 of stones in their backyard, and she’d set up a wrought-iron grill, and she served clams casino, wild-mushroom pizza, whole lobsters, a corn salad, and, I am earnest, a peach pie, all of which she produced from that fire without setting foot in her kitchen.  You know Nicholas almost can’t boil water.”

Martha is a blond, gorgeous, brilliant, sullen, outdoorsy professor with a baby she prefers to hand over to the nanny.   She is bad-tempered at the party, practically throwing parts of a stale baguette at her guests, and  she barely converses . But Regina, drunk and fascinated by Martha, finds her outside and initiates wild, quick sex with her. It seems that Martha and Nicholas have been sleeping in separate rooms for quite a while.  Both have had affairs.  But when Regina and Martha embark on an affair, it is dangerous for everybody.

Choi has an unerring ear for dialogue, tells a compelling story, and writes beautifully.

My favorite character is Regina’s housemate, Dutra, a witty ex-drug dealer who was kicked out of his prestigious school ,attended a community college for two years, and then transferred to the university in the small college town in New York, where he is now a medical student.  Dutra, like Nicholas and Regina, is struck by Martha.

Every perfect detail gives information about Regina’s charming outlook and the atmosphere of the university town.

Dutra drove a very old, very damaged Volvo sedan the color of calamine lotion where it wasn’t affected by rust. The car was so barely indistinguishable from the countless other aged, rusted, neutral-toned Volvo sedans living out their last days in that time 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 at the base of the hill.

All four of the characters end up in New York, though Martha moves west, leaving the others to recover from their suffering.  Regina is instrumental in putting things right years later when she is a mother and a writer.  And this remarkable last section of the book is in some ways the most interesting.  We get to see the characters indedependently of their love for Martha.

My only criticism is that Martha reminded me slightly of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed in H. Rider Haggard’s She.  She is a goddess with total control over everybody.  But I do know that beautiful people can control and devastate. I believed in her.

And I loved this book.  It’s brilliant, one of the best of the year.