Book/page totals

Top 10 Lists

Saturday, July 28, 2007

This satirical novel portraying the various players that make up a large university campus is just plain fun to read. Maybe not foot-stomping-knee-slapping fun, but certainly laugh-through-your-nose-smile-quietly-to-yourself fun. The cast of characters is comprehensive: urban students, rural students, faculty in the humanities, professors in the sciences, secretaries, cafeteria workers, provosts, deans, spouses, technicians, even animals. Smiley very deftly swivels points of view and convincingly describes the feelings, instincts, and reasoning of her characters. I was impressed and amused. Add the fact that the university has an agricultural mandate, and I was hooked. The plot is not particularly fast-paced or linear, but as a chronicle of a year in the life of a university, with all of its political, intellectual, and personal intrigues, the book is witty and perceptive.

Several of the main characters, Mrs. Walker, Lionel Gift, Chairman X, Tim Monahan, Nils Harstad, Dean Jellinek, are endowed with an excessive amount of self-importance. Perhaps academia breeds conceit; perhaps university folk are not more prone to it than others but merely have a more visible arena in which to act on it. I found it easy to dislike several of these people but was more sympathetic to Mrs. Walker and Chairman X, probably because I respected the Robin-Hood quality of their actions. Chairman X was perhaps the most compelling person in the book, certainly the most complex: driven by elevated ideals but beleaguered by base desires, drumming up support for his dearest causes but personally repulsive and remote. It didn’t hurt that I identify entirely with his bitterness with the world, where “the forces of greed, carnivorousness, exploitation, technology, and monoculture were everywhere more firmly in control than ever before.”

It was very interesting that this book culminates with two marriages – and between couples who have heretofore been perfectly contented to live together or merely enjoy each other on an as-needed basis. Given their unconventional lives (or maybe they’re actually ordinary?), marriage seemed all too conventional. But I found the unions to be symbols of hope and redemption at the end of an ugly semester.

Readers who wish to avoid overly explicit sexual situations would do well just to skip the "Who's in Bed with Whom" chapter.

Author:Jane Smiley
Date published:1995
Number of pages:414


Google Search