The Lessons by Naomi Alderman | Book Review

Genre: contemporary fiction, lgbt; gay & bi main characters, dark academia

Pages: 288

Synopsis

Hidden away in an Oxford back street is a crumbling Georgian mansion, unknown to any but the few who possess a key to its unassuming front gate. Its owner is the mercurial, charismatic Mark Winters, whose rackety trust-fund upbringing has left him as troubled and unpredictable as he is wildly promiscuous. Mark gathers around him an impressionable group of students: glamorous Emmanuella, who always has a new boyfriend in tow; Franny and Simon, best friends and occasional lovers; musician Jess, whose calm exterior hides passionate depths. And James, already damaged by Oxford and looking for a group to belong to. For a time they live in a charmed world of learning and parties and love affairs. But university is no grounding for adult life, and when, years later, tragedy strikes they are entirely unprepared. Universal in its themes of ambition, desire and betrayal, this spellbinding novel reflects the truth that the lessons life teaches often come too late.

My thoughts

Rating out of five: four

I was almost turned away from this book because it had bad reviews, but the synopsis sounded like the dark academia type of book I was looking for. And it’s a great dark academia book, with found family, an extremely wealthy young man in the middle of it who studies theology and a morale that the people that (by what were first seen as flaws) escaped this elitist university got the better end of the deal. And, of course, the characters experiencing (well-written) tragedies in their lives. It was the comparison to “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt that made me pick it up eventually. It’s impressive how much you can start with the same type of premise, but as a writer bring an entirely different feeling to the story. I don’t adore this book as much as I did “The Secret History”, but here the cast of characters has less of a mythology around them and more real and recognizable emotions, flaws and fears. There’s no great professor to rally around, quite the opposite as the protagonist James gets extremely little support, mostly reprimands, from his physics tutors. And the group as a whole isn’t quite pushed towards murder, but yet their personal tragedies hit me even harder.

Kendall smiled at me apologetically. I watched them go and wondered if he knew what he’d escaped, or if he still pined for the quads and rooms lined with ancient books. We always value things that are hard to get, regardless of their intrinsic worth.

The problem with this type of book is that it’s more a biography of a group of people’s lives than a plot, and so you have a so much better chance of liking it if that’s what you’re into. And also some reviews seem to dislike there being queer characters or how they’re portrayed, as it’s more yearning and dealing with a lot of religious homophobia. It is a dark book in that the characters in it are majorly morally flawed and that shows in their relationships, some turning abusive. James, for instance, is a swamp of a person, struggling with having any identity of his own. It’s fascinating to read the book through his perspective, because his opinion is shown to change as the people around him states theirs. It’s like his whole reality, value system and base of truth shifts, all the time.

This, this was the chance I’d waited for. Here, if I said the right things, I could enfold her into my life, and wrap myself in hers, in the Oxford life I had somehow missed. […] yes, just take me with you wherever you are going, I don’t need my life any more, I will take yours.

But James also has an impressive insight into what’s going on with the friendgroup, only his new girlfriend Jess beats him in that she more often seemingly knows what to do. And as the years passes, James finds his identity, but the daily life things, what he enjoys on his own, seems to still be affected by those around him. Or because of the skewed narrative, you could interpret it as James having a mental illness that shows in the start of university and every barricade of comfort he builds up from that point is to protect him from his own mind and its possibilities. It’s somewhat weird to watch James go from this ambitious physics student facing too much pressure and fall into this group of people of academically good people, yet he and Mark are the only two of them who loses that ambition. It does kind of point to the second alternative.

I did not eat much that weekend, I barely stirred from bed. It was clear to me that this was my natural condition; that without Jess I would return to the state in which she had found me – incapable, bleak, desperate. It was only late on Sunday night, when I heard her key in the door, when I saw her face, that the mood lifted, suddenly, all at once, as though it had never been.

Mark on his side comes into this book and friendgroup with a bunch of problems he already knows of, but has the charisma, the house, (the drugs) and the passion to keep them together. At least in the beginning. There’s a very specific tipping point at the very end of the book, in which he pursues teenagers, that everyone should be at the point where they hate who he had turned into. But there’s a weird slope to that point, in which he might seem narcissistic and manipulating, but he stays what the friendgroup expect, with certain few brighter and kinder moments. He is the cult-like personality they rally around.

I really appreciated the ending, where James and Jess gets to sit down and have a final talk about what went on between them. It differs this book from the similar books I’ve read. Because Jess gives James the final push out of his comfort, into Mark’s arms to take care of him, but didn’t realize the disastrous consequences. And as she’d made every right decision towards their friendgroup until that point, it only fit that she was the one to right her mistake by reminding James of his worth at the end.

Is it accurate to studying physics? Not to the average student. But the average student doesn’t find a rich friend to move into a basically castle with. James describes having been a smart kid who didn’t have to try hard up until this point and now is struggling to create study habits, which is accurate for a certain type of person. The weird competition between students at the beginning that turns into hauling each other over the finish line as the workload increases might be exaggerated, but not unaccurate. The scene where the professor laughed at the idea of doing the next weeks tasks without having done the the past ones, yet won’t give extensions seems a bit too accurate to a certain type of personality. The pre-exam scenes in themselves should come with their own warnings of accuracy as they hit a bit too close to home.

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