The novel, That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo, has a rather disturbing portrait of an academic couple who spend years wallowing in bitterness because they ended up with faculty positions at a large state university in the Midwest instead of at a more prestigious private university on their beloved East Coast. If an Ivy League faculty position was not possible, they would have settled for a small elite private college on the East Coast. But it was not to be.
Betrayed. That was how they felt. Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward?
Of course the novel is a bit over-the-top in a Russoesque way, and this grotesque couple are supposed to inspire contempt. They are also apparently lousy parents, although that's kind of complicated.
In real life, a possible reaction to this faculty couple's situation of getting jobs together at a good university, especially at a time when faculty couples were more rare than they are today, is: Great! They got jobs in the same place! Lucky!
In fact, at one point they both had separate offers at small private East Coast colleges, but not together, and they decide to stay together, at least at the time of their other job offers. Is that a touching portrait of choosing love over career? Maybe this acrimonious couple is more complex than the way they are portrayed in the book, primarily by their son?
It's interesting that this fictional couple initially tries to make the best of it in Indiana. They
..hunker down and .. dove into teaching and research and committee work, hoping to bolster their vitae so that when the academic winds changed they'd be ready.
That's kind of commendable, despite the unsavory aspects of constantly striving to leave a place they view as inferior.
Ultimately, though, these characters are loathsome. Part of what makes them so bitter is that the academic winds never do change for them, although they work extremely hard and even reinvent themselves. One of the more offensive parts of this parody of academics is when the woman in the academic couple delves into gender-studies and semi-pretends to be a lesbian because she thinks it is in the interest of her career to do so, gender-studies apparently consisting mostly of lesbians. According to the main character (the son of the bitter couple), academic lesbians are "a grim, angry, humorless lot", although he meets some fun ones at a wedding.
I am a big Russo fan, but there is much to dislike in this portrayal of academics, and women of all sorts.
The absolute worst book I have read this summer, bar none (academic or not), is Commencement. It seems like it has been a while since I read a good novel involving a college campus or academic people (faculty, students, or staff). It has been particularly long since I read one with academic characters who were likable, despite the fact that academia is populated with very likable people (says me).
Has anyone read any recent academic novels (even if academia is not the focal point) that they would recommend? Perhaps the one that has come closest to being entertaining in my recent reads is Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, although I soon wearied of the soliloquies by the beleaguered, misunderstood, and emotionally stunted (Ivy League) admissions officer.
I have one more trip before the start of the academic year, and would welcome suggestions for another book to bring along in addition to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, one of my all-time absolute favorite authors whose new book I have been looking forward to reading as an end-of-summer treat.
10 years ago