*I received this book from the publisher Harper Perennial in exchange for an honest review.
Naomi is an odd child without many friends. Her father has a heart attack when she is young, holding onto her as he falls to the ground. Her mother has always been fragile, but when the reality of her father’s mortality strikes her, Naomi decides to become a doctor, receiving a copy of Gray’s Anatomy for her tenth birthday. Unlike some childhood career aspirations, Naomi’s doesn’t fade. Her photographic memory causes her problems in school, so when Teddy moves in next door, the two become fast friends. They forge a friendship, understanding the threat of loss, as Teddy’s father has a heart condition that makes him very ill. When her closest confidant moves away suddenly, Naomi bears it but doesn’t recover, apparently still unable, or disinterested, in making friends.
College is another chance for her, but Naomi finds Wellesley every bit as lonely as high school, filled with competitive girls, girls who pass one another on walks while studiously staring at anything but one another. Her solitude isn’t a welcome one, but an inauspicious meeting introduces her to Shakespeare Society, an enigmatic group full of odd, brash women who welcome Naomi. Here, even among women who slightly unnerve her, Naomi begins to make friends, and for a young woman who has only ever had one true friend, the society consumes her, making her reexamine who she is and what she wants.
If you’ve ever read a novel that you should like – it has all the elements that typically make a great novel for you – but didn’t like, then you can understand my dilemma. An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer was that sort of book for me (and apparently others, too, if you check out Goodreads). An independent young girl is an introvert but loves learning and winds up at Wellesley, inducted into the notorious Shakespeare Society. I thought: yes, yes, and more yes!
But this novel struggles with a distinct lack of emotion. Not that there isn’t emotion, but the characters feel so wooden and distant, that I couldn’t empathize. I think the biggest problem is that Naomi never feels all that real. Her best friend moves away, and she comes close to visiting once but stops herself. As devastated as she is by his absence, even as an adult, she doesn’t try to find him but just leaves the loss of him as an open wound. As someone who moved away from friends and had close friends move away, I understood some of this, but as a young adult, those losses didn’t mar my happiness. They didn’t cause me not to make friends. Plus, after Naomi’s father recovers, he’s essentially fine. Yet Naomi can’t seem to quite ever get over that moment. Percer seems to be positing that Naomi isn’t truly happy unless she’s a caregiver, as Naomi says: “Perhaps the strongest of these convictions, and the one it took the longest to let go of, was that believing that I needed to save those I loved from harm also meant that I could.” But the prose never really teases out why that’s a problem.
Here’s the deal: if you write a story about an intelligent man or woman privileged enough to attend a private, esteemed university without severe monetary problems or the necessity of working, there needs to be some draw, some real reason for me to relate and care about that character, and frankly, Naomi never felt fleshed out enough for me to do either.
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