A 26-year-old virgin with a high IQ and low self-esteem learns that most of life’s lessons are taught outside academe’s ivied walls.
At the start of the fall term, Gillian Cormier-Brandenburg, a fourth-year doctoral student at Harvard’s Divinity School, receives word that her funding is about to be cut. The Zephyr Committee, which has paid for her schooling the past three years, believes her thesis proposal lacks academic rigor. For her dissertation, Gillian wants to interview individuals who have had secular conversions: moments of reason, clarity or nondenominational spirituality that have changed their lives. She just hasn’t found any yet. Her somewhat sympathetic adviser gives her three months to prove the committee wrong and suggests she visit a local halfway house for women, where she might find potential interviewees. Gillian follows his advice and in short order, the overworked executive director of Responsibility House has hired Gillian to be the night manager, which presents a steep (near-vertical) learning curve for Gillian, this being her first job—ever. The residents, all recovering alcoholics or drug addicts on parole, find it difficult to relate to the exceedingly short (Gillian has to stand on a chair to get anyone’s attention), often hyperventilating polymath in their midst. As her efforts to reform her charges—vocabulary games during dinner hour; group discussions on ethics—are subjected to withering sarcasm or complete disregard, Gillian finds herself also making no progress on her dissertation. And the uncomfortable fact of her virginity begins to interfere with her concentration the more time she spends among her worldly charges. Only when a handsome ex-con enters her life does Gillian begin to understand what part of herself a “secular conversion” might reveal. Brink has crafted an original heroine in Gillian, a half-pint, over-educated neurotic who finds the courage to let her heart override her overworked brain.
This inventive debut doesn’t imitate the traditional British academic comedy but, rather, forges an identity all its own.