Sometimes the reasons you fall in love with somebody never become clear. Time, distance, and age all offer insight, but also resigned acceptance that the love for an individual, however misplaced, however disastrous, remains inexplicable.
Thus, Regina Gottlieb, protagonist of Susan Choi’s My Education. Choi is perhaps best known for 2003’s American Woman, her Pulitzer Prize-nominated take on the Patricia Hearst story, told from the viewpoint of a Japanese-American woman on the lam for violent acts against society.
I try to avoid publicity materials, reviews, or blurbs before reviewing a book, but here is Michael Cunningham’s wonderful remark, from My Education’s back cover: “She (Choi) has written lines that could be framed and displayed at a sentence festival.”
I thought this was a great line itself, a meta-koan on great sentences and an apt descriptor of My Education. Choi’s sentences are dense: more happens on one page in My Education than in entire chapters of other books. A love story set in academia, however, My Education is not another “academic lit” book; most of said education occurs outside the classroom.
When Regina Gottlieb, product of a German-American father and Filipina mother, arrives at an unnamed college town for graduate school, she is warned about Professor Nicholas Brodeur. The year is 1992, just before the axe will fall on relationships between faculty and students, when sexual liaisons will go from casually accepted to grounds for termination. The computer and attendant social media that will erase every vestige of privacy haven’t happened yet. Cell phones are still in the future. It’s the perfect moment for Regina, aged 20, the kind of over-educated, highly intelligent girl who knows Derrida but not Dickens, to fall for her professor.
She does. But not for Nicholas Brodeur, whose kindness, brilliance, and physical beauty leave both sexes gasping. Regina falls in love with his difficult, mercurial, standoffish wife, Martha Hallett. And Martha, if not equally besotted, is equally lustful. Thus, the 20-year-old and the 33-year-old fall into bed with a heedlessness that doesn’t verge on destruction: it demolishes everything. Regina is too young and in love to care or truly understand; Martha is too selfish, angry, and affection- starved to care.
It would be simplistic to dismiss Regina as youthfully naïve and Martha as a rapacious older woman. The women love one another, if unequally. Both are complex characters. Martha, in particular, is one of the finest fictional creations I’ve seen in a long time. A brilliant, frustrated woman, her numerous talents serve to isolate her from others. A gourmet cook, she can conjure up a fancy four-course meal using tin cans and a fire. An accomplished athlete, she settles on sailing as her sport of choice. She is academically successful. She’s tall, blonde, slender. She’s a good liar, expert at manipulating her husband and lover. Her infant, the pretentiously named Joachim, is the only human who stymies her. His inability to understand speech means he cannot be misled.
Regina is indeed young and has racked up fewer accomplishments; what she has is intelligence and a refusal to be coddled. Though she is awed by Nicholas and Martha, she does her best to hide how very overwhelmed she is. It is she who initiates the relationship, at an excruciating dinner party. Martha is the only woman she’s ever slept with. She thinks little of this; her love for Martha is less about gender than force of personality.
Despite Regina’s wish that is not be so, there are others in their world, most notably Nicholas. Initially we are led to believe Nicholas Brodeur, with his blond good looks, his trench coats and dark Lennon glasses, is a sexual predator out for nubile young blood. His outwardly glamorous marriage, his large, impersonal home, and his easy manner all contribute to an outsized reputation that ill-fits the real man. His marriage is a shambles: Martha bewilders him. His inability to please her bewilders him more. And where another man would react with outrage at what befalls him, he is saddened. He cares for Regina. He worries she will be hurt. He tries to warn her. He isn’t the only one.
Interestingly, there are no other women in the early part of the novel. Regina’s friends are exclusively male: the gay Casper, who toils in the English department, falling hopelessly behind, and her housemate, the hyperkinetic Daniel Dutra, who goes strictly by Dutra.
Dutra is a novel in himself. A prodigy, he plans to become a vascular surgeon. He blasts his way through Bronx Science, develops a drug habit that gets him kicked out of New York University, restarts his life in this tiny college town, taking community college courses and working his way back to his former station in life. Now enrolled at the nameless University that sounds suspiciously like Cornell, he spends his time studying, smoking dope, and partying with the townies. He and Regina have a brief, pre-Martha sexual fling that rapidly subsides into a sibling-like relationship, with Dutra, the know-it-all, taking Regina in hand.
There is also Laurence, Regina’s fellow teaching assistant in Brodeur’s Chaucer Seminar. Laurence is stable, married, with a small child. He likes Martha, but finds her a profoundly destabilizing influence, though by the time he tells Regina, she is unable to listen without becoming defensive.
Regina spends a great deal of time rationalizing her passion for Martha. Now 21, she’s left graduate school, her existence narrowed down to Martha. Loving Martha to the point of engulfment seems entirely possible, even reasonable. Regina wants nothing more than to announce this enormous love to the world. Martha does not share this view. She warns Regina repeatedly that their differences are too great, that their relationship is finite. Even as the lies and betrayals become more elaborate, Regina stubbornly refuses to see, until everything finally collapses. Crushed, Regina sinks into near-catatonia. She eventually emerges, and the novel jumps forward to the near-present and her own adulthood.
As I write, California has granted homosexuals the right to legally marry. The fact that they cannot elsewhere in this country besmirches everything this nation purportedly represents. But it must be said that My Education, timely though it is, is less about lesbianism than the force of romantic love, which for many occurs apart from the loved one’s gender. Because Regina has slept with men, it’s easy to label her as bisexual or dismiss her relationship with Martha as one of youthful ardor. But this would be wrong. There are people who love passionately. Their love object may be male or female; the body is important, an erotic object, only insofar as it houses the beloved.
Without giving away the ending, which would be a disservice, I will say it surprises. The entire book surprises by its lack of animosity. Where conventional love stories involve heaping doses of rage, dwindling over time to animosity and avoidance, Choi is fearless about moving her characters back into one another’s lives. In so doing, she achieves something rare in real life: closure. An imperfect closure, with notes of hope and resignation, the hallmarks of mature, adult love, of what’s left after passion has burned itself away.