My Education—Susan Choi’s libidinous fourth novel—might more accurately be called My Sex Education or even My Bad Education, sweeping across genders, as it does, and sexual preferences: straight, bi, lesbian, constantly reversing preferences for its quartet of main characters who populate this wild academic novel. And the characters themselves? Well, here’s the way that Choi introduces Daniel Dutra, once a heroin addict (as we learn later), currently in medical school, and eventually a surgeon: “His voice was generally too loud for its setting, for the porch on this homely, leaf-drowned block of wood-frame houses on this somnolent, hot afternoon, for example, but the oversize voice was well matched with his face, long and lean and not the least softened up at its edges by his five-dollar barbershop buzz cut, its narrow span busily occupied by a large, slightly hooked Roman nose and large, hooded green eyes and a wide, mobile mouth and large out-sticking ears, all of which he tirelessly manipulated as a clown would, launching his eyebrows or stretching his grin from one lobe to another.”
The year is 1992 and Regina (Ginny) Gottlieb has just sublet space in the house where Dutra lives. When shown the room that will be hers, Ginny notes that it is spotlessly clear, but it has no bed. Dutra responds that she can either sleep on the couch or with him until she gets one. And that’s the way the sexual paring begins. Ginny’s a beginning graduate student in English and much more interested in the department’s star professor, Nicholas Brodeur, whom she will eventually work with as a TA in his
Chaucer course. In the woman’s bathroom in the department, Ginny reads the graffiti on the walls of one of the stalls: “BRODEUR IS A HARASSER, HARASSER crossed out and revised—by the same hand?—to RAPIST.” So the novel begins, in its fast-paced first few pages.
By the time Ginny knows that she is definitely interested in having sex with Brodeur, she’s long given into Dutra but then stopped the relationship, presumably because of her expectations about her professor. There’s a hilarious sequence toward the at the end of the semester when Brodeur teaches Ginny and the other TA, a young man, how to speed-read the students’ term papers—almost three hundred of them—all in one marathon session. Laurence, the other TA, explains to her: “He’s exceptionally organized…. He’s already going to have alphabetized all the papers and broken them up in three piles. We’ll each get a pile and a roster, with annotations: what each student received on the midterm, their semester’s attendance, and, if applicable, naughty behavior, primarily grade grubbing. Just from your glance at the roster you’ll know what the paper is within four or five points. From there, lavish check marks and question marks, underline, and if you’re extremely moved, scrawl ‘yes!’ or ‘why?.’ The main task is to find one thing to praise and one thing to rebut, and no more than five minutes per paper. That’s the ironclad rule.” There’s an egg-timer in front of them to keep them on track, and by the end of the session Ginny has marked eighty-six papers.
Am I shocked by this? I’d like to say yes, but so much of higher education is a sham (particularly the grading of papers) that I confess that I am not. But the passage is delightful reading in Choi’s novel, as is what immediately follows. At an end-of-the- semester party with professors and graduate students, Ginny meets Brodeur’s wife, Martha, for the first time. She’s got her Ph.D. and is an adjunct in the
English department. Brodeur and his wife are the department’s hottest couple, and Martha has recently given birth to their first child, a boy. So just about the time you wonder where Ginny’s designs on Brodeur are going to lead, Choi takes another quick turn with her characters, and Ginny and Martha are madly attracted to one another, sexually involved—madly sexually involved in the only passages of the novel that I though went on longer than necessary.
It is Ginny’s first relationship with a woman—so powerful that soon she and Martha run off to New York City for a week, leaving Brodeur with the baby. The poor baby gets tossed around among the adults for a while including one strange sequence when Ginny is, in essence, taking care of the child for a brief time. Inevitably, the attractions shift and—in the most revealing of them, fourteen years later—Ginny is married and a mother herself, still strongly attracted to Martha, Brodeur and (in case you’ve forgotten about him) Dutra. It was, in fact, the last third of the novel (all those years later) that I found the most convincing because of the maturity of all four of the characters. Indeed, there are quite moving and powerful scenes in the final section as if the 1992 section was all foreplay for what followed.
Susan Choi’s My Education is great, rollicking fun—full of interesting twists and turns and wonderful characters caught up in their own egos, neuroses, and sexual dalliances.
Susan Choi: My Education
Viking, 296 pp., $26.95.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.