Frustrated philosophy professor’s wife is shaken out of her inertia when a popular young author joins the faculty.
With an empty nest and an urgent sense of dissatisfaction, Ruth Blau knows there ought to be more to her life than holding potlucks for socially awkward graduate students—which might explain her tendency to drink too much and do too little. Once the promising author of a satirical trilogy, Ruth hasn’t been published in 25 years. She is understandably intrigued, then, by the arrival of photogenic new writer-in-residence Ricia Spottiswoode. A critical and financial success, Ricia brings along her bearish, much older husband Charles, who is also teaching a course at the university. After befriending the eccentric Charles, Ruth finds the courage to pass along to Ricia a draft of a novel she is working on. After so much time out of the game, she is not quite sure what to expect when the younger woman actually reads it. Ruth and husband Ben also struggle privately with the estrangement of their son Isaac, an emotionally disturbed 24-year-old who has chosen to live as a street person, haunting their Texas town in a filthy black coat and wizard’s hat. He will only communicate with them via his unconventional Mexican American therapist, causing them to wonder if the therapy (which they pay for) is doing more harm than good. Meanwhile, mild-mannered Ben undergoes a transition of his own as he loses his devoted secretary in a power struggle with the dean. Forced to accept a wildly inappropriate new assistant, he finds himself caught up in a PC nightmare that would be funny were it not so potentially damaging to his career. This debut novel from essayist and memoirist Gordon (Are You Happy? A Childhood Remembered, 2006, etc.) manages to skewer academia while still respecting a life of the mind. The characters are remarkable, especially the exasperating Ruth, whose insecurities and narcissism consistently stand in her own way.
A well-observed and poignant exploration of middle-aged angst.