The recent novel My Education by Susan Choi, a Pulitzer award finalist, is an addictive ‘amour fou’ angst novel of a riotous love affair in the elite world of academia and wealthy suburbanites. It is an intimately written coming-of-age story of youth vs. middle-age that details the destructiveness of all-consuming passion.
Choi writes attraction and desire as indefinably, incomprehensibly overpowering forces. Regina Gottlieb, our 21 year old heroine (narrated through the scrutinising gaze of her thirty-something self), is an impulsive and passionate Literature graduate student who falls in with the rumoured-to-be salacious professor, Nicholas Brodeur. Regina’s initial compulsion to find out more about the charming Professor is soon waylaid by her instant infatuation with his wife and mother of his child, Martha. The body of the novel focuses on Regina’s affair with the perfect yet distant Martha; a tumultuous relationship that, readers know, will eventually end in tears.
Choi’s treatment of amorous passion is arguably unoriginal but still highly entertaining reading; she has an assured command of the story she is telling, successfully evoking the happiness and torment of a young twenty-something desperately trying to grasp and cling to one she loves. There is some wonderful prose from Choi about the nature of lust in love, and the subsequent hitting-too-close-to-home realisations of its twisted reality:
“That she so frankly hoped to use me coursed through me like a charge, and I felt I understood, perhaps for the first time, the warlike accounting of love: the storing up of credits and debits like a forging of shackles”
For Regina, the love she feels for Martha is bound up in a discourse of possession and submission; Regina fears being unable to have all of Martha, to be with her completely. The suggestion is clear; this is not a romance story, but an elaborate analysis of the pains of loving too much. The narration does not shy away from the brutal intimacy of the relationship – it can be racy reading to say the least – and therefore never denies the reader access. We see everything, and our engagement with the text means that readers feel everything too.
Regina is a refreshing protagonist, as the voice Choi creates seems at times so juvenile, yet in others remarkably self-possessed. Though initially Regina’s motives are difficult to fully comprehend, it doesn’t take long to realise that this is exactly how you are meant to feel, as the older Regina – the narrator – still does not completely understand the whole story. One limitation of empathising so much with Regina is that, whilst readers can sympathise with the insecurities running rampant through Regina’s mind, we are never allowed this near to the object of her affections, Martha, who remains as aloof and unattainable as ever. Even in the final section of the book when the pair reunite a decade later, there is still an impenetrable haze around the character. Martha is an enigma to us, but in this way she seduces readers as much as she does Regina.
One issue with the story is the contentment expressed at the end, as after a decidedly chaotic tale of obsessive love, the epilogue seems rather too tidy. Moreover, despite being a forthright examination of queer relationships (though I would prefer to veer away from labelling anything in the novel), Regina’s status as a New York City housewife and writer by the end of the book asserts a more normative stance on traditional living. However it needs to be stressed that Choi does not suggest marriage is a wonderful, life-affirming commitment, as she gives plenty of evidence to the contrary. The point stressed is that everyone does not simply desire different things, but that everyone inherently needs different things, and there is nothing wrong with this.
Choi’s novel is seductive, compelling and charming. It is a completely fearless self-portrait that captures the rawness and intensity of a doomed relationship, as well as conveying the hopefulness that things once broken can always be mended in time.