Friday, August 26, 2011

A Serious Study of Serious Study

Remember way back when, I reviewed Allegra Goodman's latest, The Cookbook Collector? I heard about it on Austenprose, but was laughed at when I asked Sarah Sp. and Chava if they had heard of her.  Apparently, I was a little late to the party celebrating this great author.  Since Sarah Sp. owned her other books, I borrowed them from her… and, of course, promptly abandoned them to more pressing materials.  Everyone said Intuition was the best one, but Sarah Sp. told me to save it for last, and that was the original plan.  But however many months later, when S.b. read Intuition and bothered me to read it too, I thought it was time to abandon that careful formulation and at least get the best one read.

So, having exhausted my supply of library books, I looked forward to reading the Allegra Goodman that was the Allegra Goodman to read.  S.b. hadn't loved it, so I knew it wasn't incredible, but I liked Cookbook Collector well enough, and this one was supposed to be far superior.  CC was mildly romantic, so that should mean a substantial romance in this one, right? When I read the jacket flap, I couldn't really see a romance off-hand.  The book seemed pretty serious, tackling the not especially grave subject of academic life, but apparently delving into the discomfort arising from exposure of its dirty underbelly.  Or something like that anyway.

The truth is, though academic life isn't September 11 or the dot-com bubble, it's not a subject that lends itself to the lightest of tones.  First of all, I don't know if there exists a more competitive and tense atmosphere than that of post docs and professors fighting for recognition.  Personally, I never could get up enough ambition to stomach the constant pressure of a life in research.  So it's not suprising I wouldn't enjoy reading about it.  And besides that, there's my not so secret pang of regret at not going for that right to be a Dr :) So even more than for most people I'd say, the academic life holds less allure and more anxiety for me. 

So it's not to say the book wasn't well crafted.  It was exceeding so, with all the characters well developed, the plot moving along at a sedate but steady pace, the writing a pleasure without too much pedantry… but what a serious book! Not that CC didn't have elements of seriousness (and actually was quite serious in tone) but I thought this one was the fun one! The one everybody loved! I understand why Chava loved it, I'd say it's right up her alley - well thought out, interesting territory, and not too happy go lucky :) But I thought Allegra Goodman was my kind of writer, or at least had some of that in her.  I couldn't find a squigeon of fun, of light-heartedness, of simple pleasure here.

The characters, especially the main ones, were deliberately unlikeable.  Even the more sympathetic ones had their, not minor, faults.  The themes, at least, I would say were unobjectionable - it wasn't like the book was a doomsday prophecy or anything, the right values  - family, honesty, loyalty - were squarely championed.  But on the subject of doomsday, the ending was actually much the same as CC - in that it was disappointing.  She just doesn't like to give us what we want, does that Allegra? No one ends up in a particularly good place (I'd say Marion is the only one  who maybe ends up better off) though mostly they end up more enlightened about themselves.  But I guess that's the point of the book.  Academia is a long, hard road,  and the most one could hope for is acceptance of the way forward.  And I guess the same could be said for me and Intuition - at the end of the day, the trek wasn't bad, and I can't say I regretted it at the end, though I don't know what I got out of it :)

Verdict: 3/5

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