Romance pops up in fiction so often that plots become whodunits -- a mechanical formula for readers to solve the outcomes of the pair's desire. Finding something surprising in a story in which longing and obsession drive the plot forward requires an imaginative twist on the old theme.
Sometimes the twist is just the beginning. The young female student and the mysterious older male professor spend the early pages of Susan Choi's "My Education" engaged in nervous dialogue, hurrying to the moment when they can act on those longing gazes. The professor's wife enters to twist the aspiring lovers' desire when she becomes the recipient of the young student's climactic kiss.
The predictable set-up to the twist is less significant: a young impressionable graduate student, Regina Gottlieb moves to an idyllic New England college town and goes through the expected motions of young adult discovery: hooks up with her male roommate, Dutra, does her work dutifully but feels unsatisfied and intellectually out of her league in the English department, and of course develops of crush on her professor, Nicholas Brodeur.
The flesh of the novel (and there's quite a bit of erotic flesh) is what lies under the daily thrills and complications of Regina and Martha's relationship.
The superficial shock hits when Regina falls in love with Martha. But this is not a coming-out story or framed to be a story about two lesbians.
The surprising twist is that it's not supposed to matter that they are both women. The fact that Regina -- who had only previously been with, and presumably been attracted to, men--is suddenly in love with an older woman is supposed to roll off the reader's shoulder.
She says, "At the time, I believed the least relevant factor of all was that we were both women. Of course this was the first fact that anyone saw, but for us it felt last. It failed to register, at least with me. My adoration of her was so unto itself it could not refer outward, to other affairs between women or even between human beings. It was its own totality, bottomless and consuming, a font of impossible pleasure that from the start also bore down on me like a drill until at last it accomplished a permanent perforation."
Neither woman throws around labels like "bisexual," as if they are outside society's bounds of understanding sexuality by defining gender, experience and communities. Relationships with men shape both women's adult lives. They both choose to enter into marriages with men, a defined romantic relationship, and have children with them, placing their affair as an outlier -- a short, quiet attachment in their lives.
This outlier relationship defines Regina's "education," but why is it with a woman? Even in emotional love and certainly in sexual love, an attraction to a person--and with it, his or her gender--matters.
No matter how love-blind Regina is, the fact that her lover is a woman should play some role in how she views Martha and how she understands her own blossoming sexuality.
For Regina and Martha, what does matter in love is age. The evolution of needs in their relationship is set relative to their ages. For Regina, love is about securing the object of her obsession and that her romantic needs would be fulfilled by a committed, publicly acknowledged relationship. The validity of youthful needs becomes buried under past experiences and shifting obligations.
The older, married Martha sees Regina's love as naive and superficial, " 'Come on, Regina. You 'love' me, you want to come set up house? You 'love' me, you want to be Joachim's other mommy? You want to pay half my mortgage? You want to bake little pies every day? What is this [expletive]? What more do you want? You have me. Quit the 'gimmie.' "
Personal responsibility, altered desire and age create a power-balance weighted by their individual ideas of wisdom. Ms. Choi writes about a tangled relationship with beautiful prose. Her visual descriptions are poetic, yet the plot churns on and the pages turn.
The words accelerate the story and plunge into the inner hunger of Regina, Nicholas, Martha and Dutra. The early 20-something-lost-in-self-discovery theme seems to be everywhere in current fiction.
Ms. Choi succeeds in digging deeply into the young woman's plunge into the oppression of obsessive love. She does indeed muck her way out from under it with time. In the end, everyone was just trying to be an adult.
Julia Fraser (email@example.com) is a freelance writer living in Penn Hills.