So I’ve been mulling over this book for a month-plus, and still remain rather conflicted. The one solid conclusion I can offer is this – if I were to rank Susan Choi‘s titles, my list would read thusly: American Woman, based loosely on the Patty Hearst kidnapping; The Foreign Student, Choi’s debut novel which draws partially on her Korean American father’s early immigrant experience; A Person of Interest, which was inspired by the controversial Wen Ho Lee case; and then this, her latest, My Education. But – always that ‘but’ – although Education may rank last in personal preference, it’s also the Choi novel to which I’ve had the most visceral, lasting reaction.
The story is not particularly complex, although the characters certainly are. Hapa Filipino American Regina Gottlieb is a 21-year-old graduate student at a prestigious upstate New York university. The school’s “notorious person” by reputation is an English professor to whom Regina becomes a teaching assistant. Despite his erudite charm, Regina’s object of obsession is not the campus “predator,” but his mercurial wife who has recently had their first child. Their volatile relationship is unavoidable. While Regina suspends her formal education by dropping out of school, her emotional edification proves to be a far more formative experience.
Education seems to be a considerable shift for Choi; above all else, the emotional potency here easily eclipses that of her previous novels. In between the various partner-swapping permutations, characters seem to be keening for an elusive stability even as they repeatedly upend their lives. So self-absorbedly excessive are the main characters, however, none are particularly likable, except perhaps brash Dutra, one of Regina’s early sexual cast-offs who eventually settles into being her best-enough friend.
The unrelenting emotional pitch of the first two-thirds of the novel is utterly exhausting; yet, in contrast, the final third which fast forwards 15 years with a mere turn of a page, presents a lulled, routine married life for Regina that verges on tedious after her impassioned youth. Her ‘aha’-moment by book’s end about Dutra and her need to suddenly orchestrate his happy ending (which conveniently allows her the opportunity to indulge in a final fling in spite of her enormously pregnant state) is a clumsy narrative twist that feels like quite the unnecessary final turn.
Perhaps sticking this novel in my ears was the erroneous initial decision. Narrator Tavia Gilbert, who has certainly voiced other novels (Little Century, for recent example) with resonating success, was a misguided choice for Education; her version of Regina is all grating, tantrum-prone whine. That said, even after aural abandonment, Regina’s mewling insistently followed onto the page – ironically, even as the narrative degraded, Choi’s crisp, imagistic writing (not to mention some of the most athletic sex scenes I’ve encountered in years) rarely faltered and those pages kept turning quickly of their own accord.
Would I recommend the title? With caution, perhaps. Would I read it again? Probably not. Will I read Choi’s next? That, at least, I can answer with a most definitive yes.