Three student friends contemplate whether the pursuit of academic accomplishment is ultimately fulfilling or futile in Fedunkiw’s debut novel.
At the University of Toronto in 2002, Lily Halton defends her dissertation and envisions the start of a successful academic career. She craved intellectual fulfillment over luxury when she started in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology Institute’s master’s degree program, and she made two fast friends with similar goals. Simon was posh, British, gay, and brilliant; Greg was always struggling to keep up with the intellectual powerhouses, but was a faithful friend. Lily’s only regret now is that they will soon part ways; Simon’s already at the University of Oxford and Greg still hasn’t finished at U of T. However, Lily’s expectations deflate when she struggles to obtain an academic post. A year of applications and living on crumbs finally yields her a fellowship at Oxford, joyously reuniting her with Simon. They embark on a companionable adventure there, enjoying both the school and the town. But their fellowships expire in a flash, leaving them both scrambling for new positions before they’re impoverished and homeless. Meanwhile, the struggle for academic success proves to be too much for Greg without the in-person support of his friends, and he abandons his degree. Hence, the novel follows Lily and Simon through a decade of struggling for financial stability, and no amount of published research seems to help them succeed in the system. Greg appears to be the only sensible one, making a life for himself outside academia. Fedunkiw’s prose epitomizes her insider’s knowledge of the academic system but isn’t hampered by the dry tone of the scholar. Her dialogue richly depicts each character; Simon, in particular, is, as Lily calls him, a “verbose pedant” whose every remark is a bon mot: “Never let it be said that I do not acknowledge, to use your vernacular, the little people.” Overall, she displays impressive writing skill, with only two minor criticisms: Simon is so engaging and central to the storyline, one wonders whether the novel would have been better from his point of view, and the fact that the story is mired in the minutiae of academic posts won’t make it appeal to the broadest of audiences.
A charming, absorbing read for the academia-inclined that may struggle for readership outside its hallowed halls.