From eminent art historian and second-novelist Novak (Alice’s Neck, 1987), a wry little slip of a tale about a professor trying for tenure by writing a book about 19th-century intellectual and feminist Margaret Fuller.
In her early 30s, Angelica Bookbinder tells about her year’s leave from the English Department in a small Boston college: her purpose is to finish her book for submission to the department, whose members will grant or deny tenure depending on how they find it. As she gets further into her subject, though, Bookbinder is drawn to that aspect of Fuller—her love life—least likely to please the faculty readers. Did Fuller want intellectual independence, freedom, and equality with men—or did she want adoration, love, and motherhood? Helpless to resist, Angelica goes ever deeper in exploring the second possibility—and her own life begins to parallel Fuller’s, albeit faintly. Reading daily in Harvard’s Houghton Library, she meets handsome James Apthorp, who is also trying to get tenure, though by writing on Melville. Intellectual conversations start up (“M & M’s,” Angelica calls them, for Melville & Margaret), followed by visits to Angelica’s bed—though talks and visits both become less frequent with the appearance of the sexy lady (the “bimbo”) whom James begins seeing. What to do? Compete with the bimbo by wearing uplift bras (Angelica tries them)? Become more lustful (she tries)? Explore same-sex love, as Fuller did (ditto, but she doesn’t like it)? Or—yet how?—just be true to herself? Throughout, the reader is carried along by the story of Fuller’s life, her connections with the century’s luminaries, her travel to Rome, passionate love (with a man who can’t even read), illegitimate child, dreadful death by shipwreck.
Often amusing in spite of its thinness (Angelica is sweet but hardly believable), Novak’s satire takes wings mainly in its (or in Angelica Bookbinder’s) sections about Fuller, which, treated however lightly, are compelling, informative, and historic.