A subtle, dazzling novel about a fledgling middle-school teacher who reveals herself slowly, in layers, as if she isn’t quite sure how much to show—to her students, to their parents, to the reader.
Like a seventh-grade teacher on the first day of school, Ms. Hempel initially seems generic in this second novel from Bynum (whose debut, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was a National Book Award finalist in 2004). It’s as if she’s more of a type—the young schoolteacher who is just out of school herself—than an individual. But the individual emerges as the novel unfolds. Initially defined by her job, she gradually defines herself by so much more: her ethnicity (Chinese), her affinity for punk rock (the angrier and more abrasive the better), her family life (in her roles as a daughter and sister), her personal life (engaged, then not, then much later married and pregnant). There is so much elliptical richness in the multifaceted character of Ms. Hempel that every chapter in this short, taut novel brings revelation. As Ms. Hempel reveals herself to be “Beatrice” (and, much later, “Bea”), she struggles with how much of her life is appropriate to share with her students, for whom she is, inevitably, “the object of ferocious scrutiny.” Some of the choices that she makes suggest either her uniqueness or her inexperience—her assignment of This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, with language perhaps not appropriate for seventh-grade readers; her sharing of her personal life in sex ed; her student evaluations written by the students themselves. So much is new for Ms. Hempel—she is new at being a teacher, new at being engaged (to a man whose sexual proclivities she neither shares nor understands), new at being an adult. These chronicles represent Ms. Hempel’s education, as the teacher discovers what it means to be herself.
No sign of sophomore slump in this masterful illumination of character.