A novel that examines the relationship between the public and shared experience of a lively—even magical—classroom, and the private world of a gifted but flawed teacher.
Largely a character study of Will Silver, master teacher at the International School of France in Paris, the novel advances its narrative through multiple perspectives, much as Faulkner does in As I Lay Dying, one of the texts Will insists his students read. Will is a charismatic English teacher, one of those rare few who inspire a Dead Poets Society–type cult among the seniors in his philosophy and literature seminar. Based on their readings of Sartre, Camus, Faulkner, Shakespeare and Keats, he urges his students to raise questions about the way they live their lives and has them confront their own existential freedom and moral choices. But Will is caught in the irony of his own moral choices when he feels attracted to Marie de Cléry, a student at the school, and begins a torrid sexual relationship with her. Marie is best friends with Ariel, which is to say they have a volatile, love-hate relationship driven both by envy and by jealousy, and it’s clear that Ariel will do anything to pull Will down. While much of the narrative burden of the novel is assumed by Will and Marie, Maksik also provides views of other students, especially Gilad, whose own homoerotic attraction to Will complicates his take on things. Some of the best scenes in the novel involve the reconstruction of the philosophical give-and-take of his classroom, Will’s efforts to get his students to think and to make the literature their own. And despite the administration’s understandable desire to turn Will into a monster who’s preyed upon a vulnerable young woman, he remains sympathetic to the end.
Both intelligent and intellectual, this is both a tribute to brilliant teachers and a cautionary tale of their imperfections.