A couple of decades ago, long before David Mamet came out as a conservative, his play “Oleanna” stacked the deck badly against its female character, a two-dimensional, 20-year-old undergraduate who accuses a college professor of sexual harassment.
The play premiered in 1992 at the Hasty Pudding Theater in Cambridge, then opened in New York. “ ‘Oleanna’ might be a meatier work if its female antagonist had more dimensions, even unpleasant ones,” Frank Rich suggested in his New York Times review.
The shadow of Mamet’s play, and the cultural obsessions of its age, hang over Susan Choi’s funny and frustrating novel, “My Education,” whose narrator and central character — peculiar as it is to say so — is like the fulfillment of Rich’s speculation, slipped into a new narrative.
Regina Gottlieb is 20 as her story begins, in 1992, at a vaguely Cornell-like university. A first-year graduate student in literature, she is gossip-primed to be fascinated and repelled by the faculty’s scandalous Spenserian: “Nicolas Brodeur was a predator — not to mention a sexist! — whose continuing presence on campus proved the sorry truth of everything we’d learned in women’s studies (and so was gratifying, though most of us wouldn’t admit it).”
And yet, Regina discovers, the guy is hot. Soon she is taking a seminar from him, becoming his teaching assistant, dressing in a “come-hither costume” for a dinner party at his house, then — this is the curveball Choi tosses our way — falling hard, that drunken night, for the other half of an academic power couple: Nicholas’s wife, Martha. Never mind that Martha seems, as a hostess, furiously hostile and more than a little nuts, entering the dining room “with a long baguette under her arm,” going “around the table twisting chunks off and actually flinging them one after the other, pitching roughly for each of our plates.”
It’s Regina, not Nicholas, who’s the predator, it turns out. Moving in on a wobbly marriage, embarking on a vividly torrid affair with Martha, Regina is unbothered by her sustained betrayal of Nicholas and takes notice of Martha and Nicholas’s infant son only to the extent that the baby gets in her way. “I love you,” she tells Martha again and again, certain that she means it — certain that she knows what love means — but she’s wrong. She is smitten, yearning, lustful, greedy, insecure, and utterly obsessed, but never is she loving.
What she’s being schooled in — not so much by Martha, whose panic at her own life’s path renders her reckless and cruel, but by Nicholas and various others, all male — is indeed love. But Regina travels a tortuous road of coldly selfish behavior deep into adulthood before getting the first inkling that love demands generosity and sacrifice: action, not just passion.
And so it is somewhat baffling that Regina, who is not terribly likable, has in her life a number of people who find her extraordinary and irresistible as either a lover or a friend. Whatever the source of her magnetism, we are lucky she has it, because it keeps the tenderhearted Dutra in her orbit. Regina’s brilliant housemate and unshakably loyal friend, he is the most fully drawn character in “My Education,” seemingly peripheral to the story but truly its steady, beating heart.
When the novel leaves early-’90s academia and picks up again in 2007 New York, Dutra is the one we’re happiest to see there: a grown-up version of the guy who, in medical school, had been “stupid with hubris and unstintingly, joyfully kind,” a polymath who, “if given his bong, ‘Donahue,’ ‘London Calling,’ an everything bagel with scallion cream cheese, and a coffee-iced coffee , sitting on his sofa . . . could master any subject and retain it indefinitely.”
That quick little sketch of Dutra is Choi (“American Woman”) at her best, twining psychological insight with anthropological savvy to pinpoint a character, a moment in time, a milieu. At the novel’s start, she immerses us so immediately in 1992 that a page 4 quip about Echo and the Bunnymen isn’t awkward but impeccable. When we arrive in 2007, and someone who ought to know better has blithely named a child Lion, we understand instantly that the pretentious among us were suffering just then from Gwyneth Paltrow Apple Syndrome.
But there are patches of “My Education” where Choi’s otherwise fleet prose tangles and bogs down, usually in great expanses of description that feel writerly, not in a good way. And it’s problematic that Regina and, for much of the book, Martha are largely lacking in charm, while the men and boys around them are swimming in it.
Regina does get her education: She does grasp, at last, what it means to love, and how she might go about it. And she has plenty of dimensions. It’s just too bad that quite so many of them are unpleasant.