“Ms. Choi’s mastery of her craft is evident . . .”
Susan Choi’s intelligent third novel explores the calamitous impact of unbridled desire on the indelible reality of duty and adulthood.
Young graduate student Regina Gottlieb is self-absorbed, impetuous, and largely ignorant about life outside the thinly disguised Ivy League campus of her academic world. Narrated by an older version of herself, this book recounts a tale of raw sexuality and personal devastation in Regina’s dispassionate voice.
Setting an introductory trap for the reader, the author introduces Regina as she notices a notorious and dangerously attractive professor. Regina’s compulsion to sign up for the professor’s class might be the stuff of cliché in another author’s hand, but Ms. Choi’s brilliant description of the complicated professor is imbued with subtle humor that cushions the narrative to come.
Deftly maneuvering Regina beyond the obvious, Ms. Choi writes a powerful story of longing and desire as Regina first encounters the professor’s pregnant wife: “She was impressive in that way that preempts every other impression. I had no idea who or what she might be.” And so begins 21-year-old Regina’s pursuit of Martha, the professor’s 33-year-old wife.
Regina, with her unrestrained ardor and childlike petulance, makes unreasonable demands on Martha. She has so little concept of maternal instinct and necessity that she can’t comprehend the moments when Martha finally turns her attention to her neglected son. When it finally dawns on Regina that Martha will always choose the baby’s needs over hers, Regina becomes undone.
The breakup is predictably ugly but punctuated by the surprise reappearance of Martha’s spurned husband as Regina’s savior of sorts. He helps her heal, although it’s many years before Regina views it that way.
Ms. Choi’s mastery of her craft is evident in her description of the way the professor eventually pulls away from Regina, sending only a postcard to congratulate her on her first publication. In retrospect, Regina understands it: “A firm push, on smooth waters. After I’d traveled the distance, I saw what he’d done.”
Regina is so intensely self-involved as a young student that it’s impossible to empathize with her. As narrator, the older Regina is in her mid-thirties, married, and with a son of her own. She’s not more likeable than her younger self, but she’s become an adult. Recognizing that she can’t excuse the wreckage of her student days, she embarks on a plan to atone for it.
Winner of numerous writing awards and fellowships, Ms. Choi is an author with enormous potential. My Education is an unapologetic study of desire, self-awareness, and maturity. Her writing is laser sharp and keenly observant, highlighting the potential destructiveness of youth.
This is literary fiction at its best.