Susan Choi’s My Education has received much critical acclaim, if not critical attention, for its dramatic twist of the clichéd student-teacher relationship. This is no simple Freudian novel of transference between a young, naive waif and a suave, sophisticated man. No. At the heart of My Education lies the relationship between Regina Gottlieb and her attractive male professor’s equally attractive wife, Martha Hallett.
Choi, whose three previous novels have garnered nominations for such prestigious awards as the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award, teaches creative writing at Princeton and considers Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman as inspirations for this, her fourth, book. She also openly acknowledges Nabokov’s Lolita as epitomizing the the nonchalant style she wanted to express in narrating a heady, homosexual affair between student and teacher’s wife. Indeed, many media sources are gossiping about the novel because of the identities of the primary romantic couple; NPR has called it “thrilling” for the very reason of its centerpiece, May-December sapphic relation. And, sure, it is thrilling, and jaw-dropping, at times—especially when, in a flurry of heat at an inopportune time (during Martha’s nursing stage, shortly after she’s given birth), Regina sucks the milk from Martha’s overfull breast…and gets off on it…and Martha devilishly responds, “You sick thing.”
But Choi, fully aware that we fall in love with people and not with their identities, doesn’t get mired down in identity politics, and her protagonist, as the New York Times rightly observes, does not fall into an existential crisis about having an affair with another woman: “Regina does not concern herself with the terms ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual,’ and she is nonchalant about the sex of her new lover. It was ‘the least relevant factor of all,’ she maintains, “that we were both women.’” This is the reason why Michael Cunningham—my personal litmus test for “worthy-to-read” books—champions My Education as “a cogent, passionate, and surprising story, while acknowledging the ordinary, eroding aspects of lives lived daily.” Identity is secondary to the actual dynamic between two bodies.
Regina Gottlieb arrives on campus (one can deduce that the campus is that of Cornell, or maybe even Ithaca College) as a first year graduate student in the English Department and quickly becomes intrigued by a certain professor notorious for preying on his students. Nicholas Brodeur was a “sexist predator,” rumor had it; he even “was rumored to ask female students to read Donne to him while he lay on the floor of his office, in darkness, it was presumed masturbating himself.” Realizing that she can’t quite hack his graduate seminar, she meets him in his office to explain why she’s dropping the course, only to be persuaded to become his second TA for his undergraduate Chaucer course.
Their flirtation during the semester is innocuous enough, but, at a party that Nicholas and Martha host at the end of the semester, Regina seduces her host—Martha, even though, we are informed later in the book, that Nicholas had intended to seduce Regina at that very party.
Regina is fanatically in love as only a 20 year-old can be. She is annoying, she whines, she’s blinded by the conditions that limit Martha’s affections. Her petulance, well scripted by Choi, is matched only by Martha’s self-righteous narcissism. This results in a highly tumultuous relationship—one is “needy” while the other is “busy.” As is typical in a relationship built on a decade-plus age difference, the older Martha pulls the trump card—she has the career and family, while Regina has nothing, no obligations—and, as a result, pulls all the strings in the relationship.
In some ways, Regina and Martha’s relationship alludes to a more traditional understanding of a sadomasochistic relationship, with Regina masochistically bending to Martha’s will and giving up her entire life—including graduate school—to serve Martha’s every whim, including playing the role of babysitter for Martha’s young child.
Such relationships never last, of course, but the way Choi constructs its downfall is gorgeously devastating. Regina and Nicholas have a passionless affair as a not too subtle attempt to reclaim what, or rather who, they both lost. Two-thirds through the novel we are transported from 1992 to 2007 to find a married Regina, who has one child and another on the way, and who lives in New York with her husband. A sudden rush of random events lands Regina on the west coast to visit an older, but still terribly attractive, Martha, who seduces Regina one last time (and who, in a thrustful climax scene, cuts Regina’s lip with her c-nt).
My Education is, then, not an education in arcane literary texts but one in love. The reader witnesses Regina’s maturation in coming to terms with life and with love, which is the purpose of the last third of the novel. She comes to understand that time does not necessarily erase all memories; that it, instead, is like “[l]acquer…. Every year puts a new layer on and the past just gets harder and brighter and more permanent.” This recognition makes her harder, stronger. She cannot erase the past but can learn how to live with it—how very Nietzschean. On love, too, she acquires a similar, newfound hardness that shatters her illusions of love: “[o]ne went from believing, when twenty, that it was the one kind of love that was real, to believing, once closer to forty, that it was not only fragile but false.”
It is in breaking down these false narratives that Choi transcends the garishness of young or illicit love. My Education is a worthy, and stunning, read.