My Sentimental Education: Susan Choi’s Novel of Stormy Love
Susan Choi’s new novel, where a young woman falls in love with her professor’s wife, looks at the fluid nature of desire. By Wendy Smith.
After three politically charged novels (The Foreign Student, American Woman, and A Person of Interest), Susan Choi makes a dramatic change with the keening story of a graduate student overwhelmed and undone by love. Chronicling the stormy progression of a same-sex affair, My Education is matter-of-fact about the fluid nature of desire in a manner that recalls both Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and John Irving’s In One Person. Interestingly, in a recent interview Choi cited as her inspiration Alan Hollinghurst’s decidedly gay Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty, but her link to Hollinghurst is not so much a similar sensibility as a shared ability to write prose as gorgeous as it is perspicacious.
Regina Gottlieb falls in love with a person, not a gender—and no one is more surprised than she that this person is Martha Hallett, wife of charismatic English professor Nicholas Brodeur, for whom Regina works as a teaching assistant. “I’ve never done anything like that before,” she wails to the appalled colleague who stumbles on her locked in a clinch with Martha in the aftermath of a hilariously awful dinner party. “I’ve never kissed another woman, or one who was married, or in fact anyone who was married.” But Martha’s marriage is more of an issue for all concerned than her gender. This is 1992, after all, and the characters are denizens of a large university (descriptions and the upstate New York location suggest Cornell). And what really concerns everyone, including furious Nicholas and smitten-for-the-moment Martha, is how utterly Regina is in love with someone who can’t possibly reciprocate at the same level.
It’s not like she hasn’t been warned. “Don’t give nothing. Then give a little. Then leave,” says the Brodeurs’ South American housekeeper, describing Martha’s treatment of her newborn son. “That the way she do it.” Martha is constantly reminding Regina how young she is (21), implying that her consuming emotions can’t be shared by a 33-year-old with a lot more baggage—and that they won’t last. Even Regina’s housemate, Dutra, an ambitious medical student posing as a slacker who never judges anyone, comments cautiously, “Hallett seems like a leaver. Just take care, OK?” And leave Martha does—or rather, she pushes Regina to leave by raising her hopes that they will have a life together, and then she betrays her in the most wounding way.
Choi surrounds her lovers with a throng of skillfully rendered supporting characters. Even the most fleeting of them are memorably sketched, like the visiting professor “thick in the middle, unkempt, and plainly on the prowl for the young, groomed, and slender.” Her long, leisurely sentences unpack layers of meaning and understanding in a parade of piled-on clauses that wander, but always with a purpose, toward a multidimensional evocation of personality or place. Even quoted in fragments, they crackle with intelligence: the university’s remotely located women’s bathrooms are “grudgingly crammed into unvalued spaces ... in a belated acknowledgement of coeducation.” At once lavish and disciplined, Choi’s prose gives unfailing pleasure.
The pleasures are still abundant following the blowup of Regina and Martha’s affair, but problems of plausibility and execution intrude. Nicholas has always been a slightly shadowy figure, which suits Martha’s bitter description of him as “the remarkable absence,” but makes his rescue of Regina from alcoholic despair less than convincing and not as moving as it’s clearly intended to be. Its falseness is flagged in a clichéd farewell scene where the author’s normally sure way with dialogue deserts her.
Jumping ahead to 2007, Choi regains her emotional honesty and precision in a tender, unsparing portrait of Regina’s marriage. She’s now a bestselling novelist; her husband, Matthew, is a literary agent. “Close in age, close enough in background ... [inclined] toward all the same places, people, and things. One might wonder, if feeling unsteady, how deep a deficit of ardor such a list of matched traits could conceal.” Matthew is clearly a good man, she adores their 3-year-old son, and she’s pregnant again. But is his kind of love—“a resolute march to the future, well planned and equipped and unhindered by doubt”—enough?
Of course Martha will resurface, via a rather contrived encounter with Nicholas, and of course Regina will have to decide. Yet before this final reckoning comes a poignant rendering of the shifting contours of her friendship with Dutra, who pops back into her life, as brilliant and elusive as ever, practicing high-powered surgery in Manhattan. Observing him through a baffling long-term relationship and misguided marriage, Regina learns only belatedly that Dutra too is a scarred survivor of “crazy lightning-bolt love,” and that discovery rewrites her past.
On the brink of her affair with Martha, 21-year-old Regina saw it as “a new course of education.” But education is lifelong, and the women’s reunion acknowledges the changes 15 years have wrought. “I’d caught up,” thinks Regina. “We were equal.” She can finally view the amorous earthquake that cracked open her young life from the rueful perspective of maturity and make peace with the greedy, love-struck girl she once was. Yet that girl will always be with her: “We are ghosts of ourselves, and of others, and all of those ghosts appear perfectly real,” Choi writes. My Education is haunting, just like those ghosts.