SPLENDOR AND MISERY: A Novel of Harvard by Faye Levine


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The subtitle tells it all, unfortunately: Levine, who showed great ambition and promise in Solomon and Sheba (1980), here is content to sketch in a nostalgic, in-jokey portrait of early-1960s Harvard--while allowing her supposedly central plot to limp along into clichÉd banality. Sarah Galbraeth, an innocent from Iowa, arrives at Radcliffe in 1961. She's shocked by her sexy French roommate--but finds a warm, jocular home-away-from-home at the offices of The Harvard Crimson, where she soon attains some campus celebrity with ""An Analysis of Coeds as Ice Cream."" She also finds love and sex with editor Michael, who introduces her to socialism, jazz, N.Y.: ""Michael was for Sarah the very embodiment of optimistic, confident, positive Harvard""--and they become a top campus couple. But Sarah's loss of innocence brings confusion and disillusionment (especially when she fails to become Harvard's first female class marshal)--which push her into the arms of decadent, misogynistic student-actor Nestor: a postgraduate affair (with drugs in N.Y.) that ends in abrupt, implausible melodrama. Throughout, in fact, Sarah's journey from Midwestern virgin to overwhelmed campus queen is shakily filled in. Matters aren't helped by constantly interrupting vignettes of in-crowd Harvard life in the 1960s, which range from sentimental (friends going off to join SNCC) to cartoony (the drug doings of a Timothy-Leary-like faculty-member) to mere name-dropping (""Then the famous political theorist Stanley Hoffman walked by with a green bookbag over his shoulder""). And worst of all are groan-worthy bits of I-knew-him-when cutesiness: the young Erich Segal tells Sarah's ex-boyfriend about his idea for Love Story (""You'd make a fucking million dollars!"" says the boyfriend); Sarah sees Crick and Watson at work on DNA (Watson ""asks to see her home""); and there's that ""beautiful, small young woman with luminous eyes"" singing at Sarah's favorite coffee house. (Yes, folks, it's Joan Baez!) Harvard alums may feel an initial wave of nostalgic recognition--and amusing touches surface now and again. (In love, Sarah finds herself dressing less like a tomboy, ""more like a tasteful Paris streetwalker."") But, with neither the sharpness of a Frederic Raphael or the character-appeal of a Rona Jaffe, this reads most like a piece of campus memoir/journalism gone wrong.

Pub Date: March 3rd, 1983
Publisher: St. Martin's