Tessa Templeton should be on the verge of success. Mere weeks from defending her doctoral thesis at Oxford University, the namesake of “The Latinist” has overcome substantial odds to complete her academic career and escape her stifling Florida upbringing, even apparently replacing her dismissive late father with a supportive and loving mentor, Professor Christopher Eccles. Only as this smart and fast-paced novel opens, her boyfriend has just dumped her, the best tenure-track positions are going to her classmates, and out of nowhere the young classicist gets an email warning that Eccles may be sabotaging her.
The subject of Tessa’s thesis — and of this sparkling debut by Mark Prins — is the myth of Apollo and Daphne. As recounted in Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” the besotted god Apollo pursues the river nymph Daphne, who rejects him. Unwilling to take no for an answer, the god grabs the nymph, who prays to her river god father for help. In answer to her prayer, she is turned into a laurel tree, escaping rape but losing her agency. It’s a problematic story, particularly in an era intent on revisiting formerly condoned predatory male behavior, and that issue lies at the heart of “The Latinist.” In Tessa’s view, the conflict comes down to a footnote, specifically her reading that the use of the word “amor,” love, for what Apollo feels is meant to be ironic. (At least one man judging her work believes otherwise.) To the reader, it quickly becomes apparent that the myth is playing out again, as Tessa and her besotted mentor careen toward tragedy.
While “The Latinist” loosely follows the myth, it is neither a straight update nor a direct feminist recasting of Daphne and Apollo. Even Tessa is more interested in a slightly different subject — the work of Marius, a minor poet whose verse is distinguished by a particular uneven “limping” meter. Although Marius first grabs Tessa’s attention with what may be an earlier retelling of the story, it is the search for more of his work, and ultimately the poet’s actual identity, that leads her from Oxford’s hallowed halls to an Italian archaeological dig as she attempts to uncover truths hidden by millennia of history — and male assumptions.
Racing against the deadline of her thesis defense — and of the conference where she hopes to present her findings — Tessa embarks on a quest that evokes “Raiders of the Lost Arc” and Dan Brown’s thrillers but with more witty literary clues and references that often draw from the original myth. Lying in bed, for example, Tessa listens as “the waxy leaves of the laurel tapped against the dormer window. It seemed they were both set for the chop.” The letter sabotaging her job applications, she realizes, is “no less than an attempt to metamorphose her, terminally.”
When it comes to Tessa’s actual research, Prins digs in, delving into what can be
abstruse and picky stuff, reliant on meter and structure. “The key to the limping iambs was the way each line gathered a short-long pattern, then reversed in the last foot,” he has Tessa discern, explaining it for the reader, before quoting the Latin. It’s meaty material, but the author’s lively prose manages not only to clarify but also to convey its import to Tessa.
It helps that, throughout, Prins uses humor, often at Tessa’s expense, to leaven the academic gravitas. Recalling a bout of stage fright at an earlier conference, for example, he has Tessa remembering how she hid from the other presenters: “In the AV closet, she’d achieved a sort of Zen oneness with the dark and its warmth, its humming machinery.” Even her breakthrough moments can be read as at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, as when the author notes the impact of what might otherwise be considered trivia: “The etching of Marius’s name, inflected with an accusative ending, sent a jolt of excitement through her.”
These intellectual pursuits play out against a vivid contemporary struggle between strong and distinctive personalities. Tessa’s infamous “Templeton temper” is an anomaly at Oxford, where younger, female scholars are not supposed to speak out and where Eccles’s feigned bonhomie is more the norm. As the many layers of deception are peeled back, the insular community of classics scholars closes in, becoming increasingly claustrophobic as Tessa defends her thesis and prepares to present her findings on Marius — and maybe on Eccles as well.
The inevitable crisis, when it comes, is worthy of its heroine, even if Prins has to push credibility to match Ovid. That leaves the final pages feeling a tad rushed, especially after the loving, painful detail of those meetings. In its symmetry, if not its poetry, the conclusion satisfies, however, marking this academic mystery as a contemporary classic.
Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.
By Mark Prins
W.W. Norton, 336 pages, $26.95