Passion (or the lack of) among the academic elite is the subject of Stern’s first novel, narrated by a philosophy professor who studies the nature of knowledge while clueless about how to lead his life.
Love and academic politics at an unnamed Rhode Island college make for an uneasy marriage between recently tenured Ivan and his younger wife, Prue. Ivan, a self-proclaimed “fusty scholar” with no apparent friends and little sense of adventure or humor (except with Prue’s 7-year-old niece, May, toward whom he is lovingly protective) adores Prue, an intellectual live wire popular with peers and students. He wonders, as will readers, what about him other than sex attracts Prue—probably not his binge-eating. Ivan’s scholarship, which circles around the nature of belief and knowledge, has always been eclipsed by biolinguist Prue’s scientific research into the nature of language. She has published 20 articles to his four and has received funding to start a center for ornithology at the college. Ivan has already sensed a tension growing between them before she announces that she has not yet decided whether to accept or reject an exciting six-month research offer from the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Worse, she doesn’t tell him this while they’re alone but rather in front of her encouraging friends. Ivan seems like a stick in the mud when he complains that her absence might have a negative effect on her upcoming tenure review. Then she gives a controversial lecture questioning the ethics of her own study of animal language. Horrified by the possible damage she’s done to her career, Ivan is again unsupportive. In contrast, Prue’s visiting father, Frank, leaps to her defense in disastrous fashion. Bipolar Frank’s mental health is spiraling down because Ivan has not made Frank take his meds as Prue requested. Meanwhile, just as genuine professional success appears within reach, Ivan’s misreading of the world around him causes him to mislead Prue in increasingly foolish and serious ways.
Stern’s brittle comedy of highfalutin intellectual theories evolves into a feeling portrait of a gifted man coming face to face with his limitations.