An amusing debut novel that tries to put—and mostly succeeds in putting—an unusual spin on the clash between love and career, as the writer of a dissertation on Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor finds some eerie echoes in her own work and love life.
Narrator Ella Kennedy, who traces her interest in political theory to a crush on a former professor, has had trouble finding a subject for her doctoral thesis. And she needs a job because her father, who owns a chain of profitable discount stores, thinks Ella should now be self-supporting. So when her longtime friend Lisa, whose husband and child provide the tug of domesticity, suggests Ella move back to Washington, her hometown, and take over Lisa's job, she agrees. Her new boss is the Colonel, a former chief librarian at the Library of Congress whose ideas got him into trouble there, and who now heads a think tank, the Institute of Thought. (Both the Institute and the Colonel cleverly parody Washington institutions and types.) The Colonel, an elusive, hard-drinking man, needs a Marxist, for he's been give a grant by the Neoclassicists for Universal Thought (NUTS, of course) who want people to rethink Marx. As Ella struggles to develop a Web site for Marx and dig up Marx-related artifacts to sell, she begins a dissertation on Eleanor Marx, who fell in love and lived with a married man—a situation that neatly parallels her own, as she promptly falls in love with married, mysterious British ornithologist Nigel. The story is driven by the obligatory farcical mistakes and unlikely liaisons: the Neoclassicists turn out to be Russian Mafia seeking to launder money, and Nigel writes a play about birds that premieres in one of stores owned by Ella's father. The course of true love is no less fraught either.
Despite some forced humor and strained parallels: a stylish debut.