Sexual escapades of various sorts at a Yale graduate-student dormitory are narrated by the ghost of Helen Hadley, the dorm’s benefactor.
At the outset of the book, Helen explains the unusual narrative strategy: “Every year I select my favorites, follow their adventures, cheer on their shifts and stratagems, and pick up their lingo,” and it turns out her favorite year of all is 1983-'84, when a large and particularly engaging group of graduate students inhabits Helen Hadley Hall. At the core of the enormous cast of characters—Helen reports on well more than a dozen—is Silas Huth, brilliant at two things: sex and a close reading of texts (of the literary rather than smartphone variety). He becomes good friends with Randall Flinn, an art history grad student who's a devout Catholic and a virgin, two qualities largely absent from Yale in the 1980s. (Over the course of the novel he loses his virginity—one might almost say twice—but not his religious fervor.) We also meet Becky Engelking, a voice student from Iowa, who tends to fall in love with those who are unavailable, and Carolann Chudek, a 39-year-old graduate student in French—happily married but on a “journey of liberation” with designs on the head of the French department as well as on a hunky townie. Magruder’s technique is to foreground first one set of characters and then another, so while some briefly recede into the background, others move into the center of our field of vision.
This is a tour de force in terms of narrative strategy, though the sexual antics, despite their multitudinous variety, eventually get tiresome.