There is a large group of literature in the American canon referred to as “coming of age.” Though Susan Choi will discuss her new book, My Education, at a Saturday afternoon panel at the Harbor View Hotel entitled Coming of Age, she says it only partially belongs there.
The main character of her novel is more of a late bloomer.
“I would also say she is a little old to be coming of age. It’s more of a should-have-known-better type of book,” she said.
Regina Gottlieb’s maturation process is no less painful than the familiar trials of adolescence chronicled in many young adult books. She suffers her share of heartbreak, awkwardness and lack of direction. Regina falls for a professor, who happens to be a woman, and is unable to pry herself from the grasp of her seduction. The love triangles, or perhaps love squares, persist more than one decade later. Despite this, she “definitely learns valuable lessons and makes crucial mistakes,” Ms. Choi said.
The narrative revolves around the inner life and intimate relationships of the 21-year-old, first-year graduate student. The story is told through the retrospective lens of a late-thirties Regina, who looks back with thinly veiled disgust on the much deliberated choices, some good but mostly bad, of her younger self. The use of first person narration leads the narrator, and subsequently the reader, to be critical of the protagonist, whose naivete suggests she should know better.
“My initial idea for the book was to write about a woman who, looking back on her young womanhood, is sort of startled by the decisions she made, by her own blindness and recklessness,” she said.
She constructs a glaring contrast between the indifference the younger Regina feels toward children, most notably the infant child of her lover, and the caring, thoughtful motherhoood of the elder Regina, whose more mature nature is detailed in the last, shorter part of the book. The writing required far less research than her previous novels, which were based more heavily on historical and political events. For example, her 2004 novel American Woman told the story of the Patty Hearst kidnapping of the 1970s through the eyes of an accomplice.
This book bears more resemblance to life experiences familiar to Ms. Choi. It is set at a university in upstate New York, not unlike Cornell, where Ms. Choi earned a MFA in writing. Though a convincing depiction of the politics of academia defines the backdrop of the book, the focus is on Regina’s complex love and social life. “I just wanted to write a book about relationships and emotions that didn’t involve a lot of research,” she said. Surprisingly, she said, men have shown significant interest in her book since its release, although she expected it to appeal more to women. Regina later grows up to be an acclaimed writer.
The book contains significant erotic content, which could explain why the author “has been trying to persuade my parents not to read it.”
Ms. Choi spent two and a half years writing and revising the book, her fourth. A small group of other writers read early versions of the manuscript, including Jennifer Egan and Jhumpa Lahiri, both renowned fiction writers who are friends of Ms. Choi. She has been a member of a writer’s collective, based at an office in Brooklyn, for more than a year. The community of writers she belongs to isn’t defined by competitiveness, she said.
“I think it’s much more the norm that writers lean on each other,” she said. “We writers end up being each other’s editors as well.”
Susan Choi will speak at 3:10 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, at the Harbor View Hotel and at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 4, on the grounds of the Chilmark Community Center.