By Caroline Preston
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
IT WILL COME TO ME
By Emily Fox Gordon
Spiegel & Grau. 267 pp. $24.95
It's easy to understand why American novelists of every generation -- from Mary McCarthy to Michael Chabon -- have taken a whack at the campus novel. The libidinous professors, the wheedling students, the decades-long feuds, the Karl Rovian department politics are all the stuff of comic fiction. But in her wry first novel, "It Will Come to Me," memoirist Emily Fox Gordon gives voice to a too-often-neglected character who lurks at the edges of any campus drama, unseen yet all-seeing: the faculty wife.
Ruth Blau is the 50-something wife of a philosophy professor at Lola Dees, a large Southern university much like Rice in Houston, where Gordon teaches. In her faculty-wife mufti of clogs, graying updo and dangly ethnic jewelry purchased on eBay, Ruth is, in her own words, "stuck." Her mildly acclaimed first book -- a campus novel, no less -- was published 25 years earlier and languishes in the dollar bins outside used bookshops. She spends her days poking at a second novel, drinking too much wine and watching fevered weather reports on the latest hurricane barreling their way.
Ruth's main occupation is making scornful observations about the "dull dull dull" Lola D. community. She finds her husband Ben's latest batch of graduate students a "stunningly docile bunch. . . . The girls liked to bake and tended to gain weight. The boys watched sports and moped. . . . Where was their angst . . . their lust?" She's equally irritated by the jargon-spouting dean who calls faculty members "stakeholders," Ben's smug colleagues who have "never owned a television" and Lola's new MBA-holding, pretty-boy president.
Behind Ruth's booze-fueled crankiness lies inconsolable grief over her mentally ill son, Isaac. She keeps former friends at arm's length so she won't have to hear about their children's latest achievements -- the medical degree, the Supreme Court clerkship. She doesn't want to answer the inevitable "How is Isaac?" with the truth -- that he never graduated from high school and now wanders homeless through their Texas town dressed in a filthy wizard's hat.
But she jolts out of her torpor when red-maned Ricia Spottiswoode, the glamorous new writer-in-residence, arrives at Lola. Ruth slips Ricia the mountainous draft of her second novel, fantasizing that an "actually famous" writer will recognize her languishing talent and revive her dormant literary career.
As Hurricane Heather blows into town, Ruth's hopes for her writing, her marriage, her place in the Lola community and her lost son surge together in an uplifting ending that feels a little more like wishful thinking than actuality. Nevertheless, Gordon's hilarious spin on the inanities of academic life, from the welcome-back potluck supper to the dean's Tapestry Task Force Mission Statement Working Group (TTFMSWG), reassures us that the next generation of the campus novel is alive and kicking.
Preston's most recent novel is "Gatsby's Girl."