I did not read "One-L," Scott Turow's nonfiction account of law school life, when it was published, because I was myself a first-year law student then, with no time to read my children's report cards, let alone an unassigned book. It is inconceivable to me, however, that Turow nailed law school better than Katherine Roome has in "Letter of the Law."
Roome, an associate with a New York law firm and a graduate of Cornell University Law School, has captured the idiom and the atmosphere of law school with faultless precision. She is funny and true, whether she is describing the substance of that life -- "We all carry the great red or gray thousand-page tomes, of which we will never read the second halves" -- or the style: "Class was over. I had a question. I must have had a question. I usually have at least a dozen that go unanswered and are ultimately forgotten after every class (until, of course, they appear in altered but still recognizable form on the final exam)."
Roome is a writer of uncommon grace and clarity who shapes her prose with care; often it is a joy to read. Her sensibility is no less appealing. Her heroine, a second-year law student with the improbable name of Ixias Smith, blends innocence and prescience, strips bare the world with a clear and level gaze, then kisses it with whimsy.
But "Letter of the Law" is not another or a better "One-L." Because it is a novel, it fares less well. Instead of a plot, the book has a plot line about a writing competition among second-year students to land a berth on the law review. Rather than dramatic scences, it has anecdotes and episodes -- Ixias' attempt to seduce a professor who will help her with her entry for the competition; an abortive assault by a success-crazed student; the return of the heroine's old beau. The resolution is more soap-opera than solid; the characters exist between the credible and the cardboard. The result is a piece of fiction that is too often inadequate and contrived, a perfect stage set on which is mounted a disappointing play.
Still, novels that display so high a quality of prose and sensibility are rare these days; we should be grateful for a writer who manages to hit two for three. "Letter of the Law" is at the least a pleasant romp through picturesque territory with an often-luminous mind as our guide. If the ability to construct a complex and satisfying plot is an ability that grows with experience and craft, we may look forward to exciting work from Roome.
I hope the author continues to combine her chosen fields. We need lawyers who are better writers and writers who are better thinkers. How felicitous it is that one person should come along to fill both bills.