I am frankly not sure what to think of this book. I've said before that the hardest reviews to write are the “Meh” reviews. This book left me with a similar and equally difficult to explain feeling of “Welllllllll, it was…there was some…but…it was okay.” There were moments when I couldn't put the book down, and there were scenes where I had no idea what the hell was going on or what anyone was talking about, and was losing my patience with everyone. There were incredibly vivid depictions of the setting so well written that I could picture everything in my mind, and there were places in the story that confused the hell out of me as to where the characters were and what they were doing. The high notes canceled out the low notes and left me with a difficult to explain feeling and a total inability to figure out who I'd recommend this book to, if at all.
Anna Lieberman is the new tenure-track professor of English at Ardrossan, a private Southern liberal arts college. She's thrown into an English department in flux, with ample politics and backbiting to go around – standard operating procedure for academic departments from what I know. Anna is assigned a mentor, Giles Cleveland, a senior professor, who is supposed to guide her through her initial years at Ardrossan, assisting her in achieving tenure, a process that takes years, and through which she must maintain a spotless and stellar reputation.
Anna is immediately swamped by huge problems – her office is the storage closet for a somewhat unstable professor emeritus who no one can control, her lock is changed without her knowledge, there's problems with her paycheck, and then there's the faculty meetings, which make diplomatic negotiations between North and South Korea seem tame and elementary. Giles Cleveland is an enigmatic presence through the first months of her job, and Anna fights an overwhelming attraction to him, knowing that to even step in his direction is to jeopardize any hope of her achieving tenure.
The power differential and the ways in which Anna copes with it were fascinating, but my biggest problem with this book, despite several powerful and really absorbing scenes, was that there is no escalation of the stakes or the tension between Anna and Giles. Giles follows a cycle of vulnerable, powerful, angry, passionate, suppressed, enigmatic, effusive, and mysterious. Anna goes through similar merry go round of repeated emotions: overwhelmed, determined, attracted, on fire aroused, whiplash angry at Giles, repeat and repeat again. This shift of emotion and reaction could occur in the same scene and was mentally exhausting.
There is ample sexual and emotional tension, but frustratingly, the stakes don't change. They go in circles and the tension never escalates. The book repeats the following pattern:
- She agrees to admit to herself she's attracted to him.
- She fights that attraction because it's professionally unwise (and probably one-sided).
- He says or does something that makes her question whether it is one sided and/or whether it's worth the professional destruction.
- She mouths off or starts a fight with him, fighting that attraction with impertinence.
- He says or does something that knocks her emotionally off-balance again.
- Return to step 1.
There ia a banquet of ancillary characters and they served roles instead of being people. There was the sassy gay-closeted best friend, the weird landlord and his family who show up sporadically, and two female best friends who were interchangeable and weakly developed. All of the friends served as plot sounding boards, either about Anna's decision to leave New York for Ardrossan, or Anna's increasingly reckless feelings for Giles.
That said, there were moments in this book that captivated me sometimes to the point where I snuck off to read it. It also affirmed my decision to run screaming out of academia, given the political machinations of so many of the department's professors. I found it disturbing, though, that major problems, like a professor being accused of rape, are gossiped about by the other professors like the accusation is about as important as cheating or backstabbing professionally. There are scenes that made no sense to me, conversations between colleagues that probably had subtextual meanings but hell if I knew what they were. The most magnetic scenes in the book were between Giles and Anna. Some of the subplots, particularly the department chair being accused of rape, are weighty subjects treated with a glancing perspective, as if they aren't really important – when they probably should have been realistically. It didn't fit the deep fluency with academic politics that the charges weren't taken more seriously by everyone.
Anna suppresses the importance of some of her problems and expends energy on minor issues, all the while assuring the reader through her monologue that she knows how academic departments work:
This is absurdly like a second date, or like finding yourself engaged to be married to someone you’ve only met once. We met, fancied each other, and made a commitment for a six-year try-out period. I’m the pretty young fortune-seeker; the college is the rich old guy setting up a detailed pre-nup to make sure it is I who will end up poor and homeless, if our relationship goes down the drain.
These are not admirable people, and sometimes Anna's decisions on what to pursue and what not to pursue were baffling to me.
Also of note: this book is first person with lots of Exclamation! Points! In the dialogue! Everyone, especially Anna, exclaims a LOT.
There are also so many ancillary conversations that amount to nothing. They take up space and don't advance the story. The conversations with her landlord's family, the daughter, the creepy and disgusting student in her class, the problems with her rental home… largely meaningless. The focus of the plot the big conflict is Giles, and the repeated sequence above.
This is a difficult review to write because I was into the story while I read it. If this was ever meant to be Twific, and I can see this being compared favorably to several of the TwiFics that have been subsequently published, I liked this version of BelAnna and could tolerate being in her head. She didn't always know what was going on, but she was more self aware and a bit more cognizant of her own moments of idiocy. There are moments when Anna is feisty and mouthy for no reason other than to bother Giles. There are moments when she is so honest with herself about her own desires that it is a pleasure to be in her head. She is not stupid. Headstrong and sometimes erratically confrontational, but not stupid:
A knock on the door saves me, but as the electricity tingles in my nerve endings, I have to confess to myself that I’m hoping Cleveland is back. I pissed him off, and I can’t wait to see him again. Something’s wrong there.
Cleveland is gazing at me, and I’m not sure it’s because he is waiting for me to catch up, or because he is using me as a screensaver while he is thinking.
I think the best way to describe my experience with this story is that I half-enjoyed reading this book. There is no doubt that the writer understands academia, the power dynamics within departments, and very petty politics of a private liberal arts college. There was also amazing use of British colloquialisms that I had to look up every so often. The language patterns were identifiable sometimes even without dialogue tags. Anna had a British vocabulary and we are told a New York accent and imagining her voice alone was mentally entertaining. The build of tension was a powerful and carefully built structure, and even though I knew they'd end up boinking each other at some point, I almost did and did not want it to happen.
The power of deep point of view is that it reveals the other party in such a limited fashion though the baggage and prejudices of the narrator that it makes the other party more of a tantalizing mystery, especially if his actions can be read either way – either he does desire her and he is trying to avoid it or to not act on it, or he doesn't and she is misreading things. The moments where Anna is trying to manage her feelings for Giles while sparring with him verbally and while trying to read his reactions accurately were some of the most interesting and well-written scenes in the book. They were so powerful, the other characters and interactions pale by comparison. For me, there was so much of of the pale scenes of confusion that it diluted the power of the interactions between Giles and Anna.
I honestly do know who to recommend this book to. If you like books with erotic tension that focus on power differentials, with a powerful enigmatic hero and a much less powerful, erratic and challenging heroine, you might like this. If you like stories with forbidden attraction (here it's senior colleague/mentor and junior colleague) and age difference, and with a deeply realistic setting and community (the politics and complete asshattery that's baked into many academic departments is so well done), you might like this book. It's uneven: there are great scenes and baffling scenes. Whether the great is your catnip and outweighs the bad parts is something I cannot predict for every reader, unfortunately. For me, it broke even with a mighty “Meh.”