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Book review: ’My Education’ in love and loss

“My Education” (Viking) by Susan Choi

Our first glimpse of Regina Gottlieb is as a graduate student in her first days at a prestigious university. Somewhat naove and more than a little intimidated by the sea of bright lights around her, Regina is drawn to a notorious and notoriously handsome English professor whose reputation has been both burnished and tarnished by rumors of sexual misbehavior.

Nicholas Brodeur, Regina muses when she first sees the infamous academic, was “certainly the best-looking man I had seen to that point in my life.” So enthralled by Brodeur and his dangerous aura that she enrolls in a seminar for which she is severely under qualified, Regina soon becomes Brodeur’s teaching assistant and is drawn into his innermost circle.

There, “My Education” by Susan Choi, takes an abrupt and unexpected twist by thrusting Regina into a torrid affair not with Brodeur, but with his beautiful and charismatic wife, Martha, also a professor at the university. And the novel itself becomes an exploration of love, loss and obsession.

Choi, whose previous novels have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and for the PEN/Faulkner Award, is at her best when describing the soul-consuming, life-spinning vortex of Regina’s desperate, needy love for Martha. The young student ignores the realities of her lover’s world — the husband who was once Regina’s mentor, the infant son who still needs tending, the housekeeper who views her with suspicious disapproval. All that matters is her hunger for Martha.

“My adoration for her was so unto itself it could not refer outward, to other affairs between women or even between human beings,” Regina recalls of her descent into heedless desire. “It was its own totality, bottomless and consuming, a font of impossible pleasure that from the start also bore down on me like a drill until it at last accomplished a permanent perforation.”

Choi wields a dazzling dexterity with language, spicing the novel with gems of precisely-crafted phrasing and slivers of insight into the human psyche.

Here, she captures the intensity of utter, bereft agony familiar to anyone who has been on the wrong side of a love affair.

“I slid down, into dusty unregarded margins, and was left behind and forgotten by the flesh part of me, which went on. But the flesh part did little apart from go on. Waking in the morning I was conscious I had woken, a pain so intense that it solved its own problem. It gouged like the edge of a spoon scraping flesh from a pelt, and destroyed what could feel it.”

Ultimately, however, the novel suffers from the self-absorption of its central characters. Although painted as alluring, magnetic women, Regina and Martha emerge as selfish and unlikeable, only dimly aware of the impact their actions have on the lives of those around them. Even Regina’s eventual awakening rings hollow, a redemptive act negated by an all-too-facile infidelity.

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