Four roommates at a liberal arts college respond differently to the charisma of a married visiting professor with a murky past.
There’s not much good sex in this second novel from Berman (Perennials, 2017) but a fair amount of bad. As the story opens, 21-year-old Fiona Larkin, who rooms with Liv, Lula, and Marley, all seniors at Buchanan College in Pennsylvania, is advised not to spend the night with a male student who has been accused of rape. But needy Fiona sleeps with him anyway, an ugly experience, typical of the kind of poor choices she’s currently making in the aftermath of her younger sister Helen’s sudden death and her family’s disintegration. (Fiona and Helen also featured in Perennials.) And it’s not only Fiona who arrives with a deep backstory. Lula is a rich, black, half-Jewish femme lesbian, and Liv is the product of a Japanese mother and a wealthy, alcoholic American father who possibly abused her. To this mix Berman adds a catalyst, Oliver Ash, a teacher of literature and creative writing who brings to Buchanan a Holocaust background and his own history of dubious sexual conduct. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Ash’s wife, Simone, is tending their 5-year-old son, Henri, while studying the sexual slavery of concentration camp prisoners. Certain themes, it becomes obvious, are the tent pegs holding up this long novel, which partly presents itself as a saga of female campus friendship but also wants to address weighty contemporary topics. The result is a restless, relatively eventless tale: Liv loses a boyfriend and develops a passing crush on Oliver; Fiona grapples with her insecurities, guilt, and a matching crush; Liv and Fiona take a doomed trip to Paris; Simone faces up to her feelings. The learning curve, it seems, is an often gloomy and incremental business.
A readable but reductive and rather off-putting look at relationships, whether new or old.