SLEEPING WITH PROFESSORS was never my thing. So, upon learning that this was the premise of Susan Choi’s My Education, I had the sense that I wouldn’t necessarily relate. But then I’m also the victim of an overactive imagination. I’ll certainly indulge in an impossible fantasy, especially one that seduces through language. I went into this novel ready and willing to be educated, you might say. But My Education left me more frustrated than enlightened. I found it lacking in the kind of depth necessary to impart wisdom. And aside from one exciting narrative thread we get to indulge in early on, it also suffers from a shortage of what should be its most vital, or at least its most enticing, element: sex appeal. This is a coming of age achieved through a series of forbidden love affairs and erotic awakenings, after all. It’s allowed to disappoint on complexity and depth, but the one thing it ought to be is hot. N’est-ce pas?
Regina Gottlieb starts graduate school in a distracted state, on an unnamed Generic University Campus in an unnamed Generic University Town. She’s there to study something also unnamed (and apparently deemed irrelevant — we’ll never find out). But then who cares what she’s getting her degree in, once she’s spotted professor of poetry Nicholas Brodeur, the scandalous sex-fiend hero of many an implausible campus rumor — am I right, ladies?!
Choi is at her best in fashioning Brodeur, the elusive, brilliant academic with an ’80s bad boy edge and a blue blood twist, and his wife, Martha, at eight months pregnant a woman as strangely sexy and mysterious as he is. Nicholas is charming, warm, a bit of the nerd despite the good looks, while Martha is untouchable and alluring, an ice-cold beauty with a tough, masculine side she likes to highlight in how she dresses. Her face is “like an Andrew Wyeth painting,” her manner implacable.
Regina’s roommate, Dutra, is also charmingly three-dimensional. He’s a genius med school student with a colorful past and a gargantuan ego. When Regina first moves in, they immediately begin sleeping together, without fanfare. Then they stop sleeping together, almost as quickly, at her behest.
Meanwhile, Regina enrolls in one of Brodeur’s courses out of lusty fascination, only to find she’s way out of her depth. To drop the class she must speak to him for the first time, in an overly heady, tension-soaked encounter in his office, where she instead finds herself being offered a job as his TA in an undergraduate Chaucer lecture. For no reason. “How’s your Chaucer?” Brodeur asks. “Nonexistent,” Regina responds. Unfazed, he hires her on the spot. “He knew I knew nothing, and still wanted me,” she trills as she sweats through her thin cotton dress. Regina only survives Chaucer once she’s rescued by a sturdy and calm PhD candidate named Laurence, her fellow TA and Brodeur’s acolyte. Laurence is another well-drawn secondary character, old-moneyed and old-fashioned, a true gentleman and scholar. Through an implausibly immediate kinship with Laurence, Regina gains new access to the Brodeurs. She is now inside their house, clinking glasses while grading tests, hanging on Nicholas’s every word, and best of all, reveling in a few fleeting glimpses of his imperfect marriage. Martha, with her icy detachment and vague postpartum distress, is an ongoing mystery, an angry whisper disappearing down hallways and such.
And then comes the plot twist, an impressive, totally unexpected little turn that shifts the story’s course entirely and is by far My Education’s most satisfying moment. Just when Choi has us panting for this Regina-Nicholas moment to just happen already, it’s not Nicholas but Martha who locks lips with Regina. Trapped alone with a joint in some distant dusty room, they go from awkward conversation, to obvious flirtation, to full-scale make-out session in a series of perfect, totally sexy beats. This was a moment expertly drawn; just surprising enough, just plausible enough, just scandalous enough; and it’s hot.
But from this point forward, while the steamy naughtiness carries for a bit, everything falls apart. Regina is suddenly, almost unbelievably emboldened. Martha is still the same mysterious, cold, intimidating figure, yet out of nowhere, Regina has no problem pushing her to get involved, quite vocally. They become a couple — an illicit couple, that is. Of the top secret, back-alley, closed-door variety.
Of course this cannot last. And once it ends, things take a dive. Not only for Regina, but for the novel as a whole.
Racing flushed and breathless out of Regina and Martha’s love affair, I expected all sorts of intrigue. Especially through the ensuing developments; Regina stumbles out of this painful break-up into a melodramatic, alcohol-fueled, downward spiral featuring a fair amount of ill-advised empty heartbreak sex — with innocent bystanders, unsuspecting classmates, and ultimately, inevitably (also entirely implausibly), Brodeur himself. But in all this romping, the rush just never delivered. Perhaps due in part to the language of Regina’s narration, which is often decidedly un-sexy, even somewhat stodgy, with an academic tremor: during your average encounter, she casually tosses off fleeting thoughts the likes of “Perhaps my acquiescence in his dogged belief that our friendship was deathless, at least not to be killed by betrayal or any other such finite cataclysm of feeling, had been my kindness to him.”
If this book were able to glory in its raciness, perhaps the heavy-handed phrase here or there would be less offensive. But My Education insists on treating Regina’s sequence of affairs like something substantial, driven by meaningful forces. Like love. The concept, or maybe just the word, is constantly resurfacing, lest we forget its overarching grip in this narrative. (And we would, if left to discover it in the actual plot or characters.) In the midst of scenes that should be busy carrying us away into blushing arousal, Regina philosophizes: “In love contrary impulses constantly war with each other,” or “Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement,” and “Love is tutelage, after all.” If these insights are meant to elevate the sensual and imbue it with meaning, they have just the opposite effect. We’re dealing with characters whose connections are so purely physical that it almost cheapens the value of sex-for-sex’s sake to start in with the L-word.
These issues all connect back to My Education’s main problem: Regina herself. Not only does her voice as narrator never really develop, there is also a lot missing about who she is, on a basic getting-to-know-you level. One gets the impression that Regina’s characterization is an oversight on Choi’s part, a case of the writer knowing this person so well in her mind that she fails to paint an adequate picture for the reader. Early on I thought maybe this blankness around her was intentional — we weren’t meant to know where she began, only to understand the journey, and where she landed. Maybe certain things were left off the page on purpose…
If so, by novel’s end we ought to have a sense of who this person is, whether we feel her intuitively through the intimacy of the narrative voice or define her concretely through a series of character-defining actions. But in the final act of this story, when we catch up with Regina some years later in New York, where she’s landed in a perfect, happy life and found great success as a writer, she is not any more human than the blank slate we were presented with on page one. We follow this adult Regina as she navigates a series of predictable reunions and strangely forced resolutions with figures who are now ghosts of a distant, buried past. Or so we’re told. Hard to say where the haunting shows itself as Regina sails through a series of plot machinations with Dutra, Martha, and Nicholas Brodeur, without even a hint of struggle, difficulty, or pain. Without a hiccup she confronts her past, gets her closure, and even actively ties things up into the neatest of little bows for all of the novel’s secondary characters. As she rides off into the sunset with nothing lost or so much as a scratch, it remains unclear what, if anything, she has learned.
An education is more than just exposure or experience. It is change, in the lingering impact of ideas and events that collectively shape us, over time. Whether for better or for worse, becoming educated is becoming different. If I’d understood the woman Regina was to begin with, perhaps I could’ve connected to the woman she became, or the woman she should’ve become yet didn’t. Or maybe the change in her was simply too much of a void to locate its impact. Whatever the cause, My Education did not deliver, leaving me not only neutral on the erotic front but glaringly unenlightened, above all.