By Susan Choi
Fiction focusing on entanglements between precocious yet naive female university students and older, predatory professors is such a tired trope that one can be forgiven for approaching Choi’s novel with foreboding. Here we have Regina Gottlieb, a 21-year-old grad student signing up for professor Nicholas Brodeur’s Chaucer class at an unnamed, prestigious college in New York state because she’s intrigued by his legendary lothario exploits. But after Regina lands a gig as Brodeur’s teaching assistant and enters his domestic orbit, Choi surprises us: it’s not the uncommonly handsome Brodeur, but his prickly, accomplished wife, Martha, a professor and new mother, who becomes the object of Regina’s amorous obsession.
Choi’s recounting of their fervid, reckless affair deftly captures the intellectual arrogance and catastrophic heartbreak that occurs at every age, but is most acutely experienced at 21. Regina, at times, is an unreliable, even vexing narrator oblivious to the destructiveness of her oceanic passion as she careens from one misadventure to the next. The fact Martha is female, and Regina resolutely heterosexual, is not treated as a surprising turn of events, which only reinforces Regina’s lack of introspection as it raises readers’ questions.
My Education bristles with observant detail, so much so that it can occasionally be a slog. The novel’s structure is also odd: it’s divided into two parts; more than two-thirds of the narrative occurs in 1992, the resolution 15 years later. When we revisit Regina in 2007, she is a wife, mother and successful novelist living in New York. Once again the primary characters’ lives intersect in unexpected ways, this time in a more nuanced—and satisfying—manner. Regina’s youthful certitude has waned: “Middle age only meant that the least reconcilable times of one’s life would in fact coexist until death,” she realizes. Finally, she’s figuring it all out. And, then, too quickly she’s gone.