An Uncommon Education
Afraid of losing her parents at a young age--her father with his weak heart, her deeply depressed mother--Naomi Feinstein prepared single-mindedly for a prestigious future as a doctor. An outcast at school, Naomi loses herself in books, and daydreams of Wellesley College. But when Teddy, her confidant and only friend, abruptly departs from her life, it's the first devastating loss from which Naomi is not sure she can ever recover, even after her long-awaited acceptance letter to Wellesley arrives.
Naomi soon learns that college isn't the bastion of solidarity and security she had imagined. Amid hundreds of other young women, she is consumed by loneliness--until the day she sees a girl fall into the freezing waters of a lake.
The event marks Naomi's introduction to Wellesley's oldest honor society, the mysterious Shakespeare Society, defined by secret rituals and filled with unconventional, passionate students. Naomi finally begins to detach from the past and so much of what defines her, immersing herself in this exciting and liberating new world and learning the value of friendship. But her happiness is soon compromised by a scandal that brings irrevocable consequences. Naomi has always tried to save the ones she loves, but part of growing up is learning that sometimes saving others is a matter of saving yourself.
An Uncommon Education is a compelling portrait of a quest for greatness and the grace of human limitations. Poignant and wise, it artfully captures the complicated ties of family, the bittersweet inevitability of loss, and the importance of learning to let go.
For once, I actually think the books they make comparisons to in the blurb are right on the money. Of the three, An Uncommon Education had the least in common with prep, and quite a lot in common with Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Also, I like An Uncommon Education best of all of these things. This book moves at a slow, sort of drifting pace, but the slow parts were worth it to enjoy the skilled prose and clever observations about life.
Readers who like books with a fast pace are not likely to be well-pleased with Percer's debut, but I do not mind a slow pace, so long as a story has other things to recommend it, especially if I can take my time with it, rather than trying to rush through for a deadline. Percer's writing is intricate and well-worth savoring slowly.
What Left Me Wanting More:
What kept me from really connecting with this book is its lack of direction combined with its pretentiousness. Taking the former, the novel does not have a cohesive plot. There's nothing really propelling the reader forward. It's just a woman looking back at her life, though primarily just her childhood and college years, in the period after her mother's death.
Naomi learns about the tenuousness of life and the dangerousness of love during her childhood. Her father has a heart attack and nearly dies in front of her right at the beginning of her story. Later on, just as she's starting on puberty and falling in love for the first time with her neighbor Teddy, his father dies, and Teddy's mom moves them away. From this point on, she avoids real close connections, a habit she cannot truly shake at college. Naomi also keeps an emotional wall up between herself and the reader, which prevented me from forming an attachment. There does come a change suddenly towards the end, and I would actually like to have seen more development of her character, so that I could wholly buy into her changed mindset.
I suppose I knew the book would be one of those intended to highlight the mighty intellect of the author, but not to this degree. As with Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the main character becomes involved in a time-eating, addictive society, one which leads to a degradation in her classwork and some out-of-character decisions. The club, while not secret, has some seriously unsavory practices, like the parties after their performances of Shakespeare plays where the girls hook up with others, some of whom are masked to preserve their identities.
While there's nothing wrong with a drifting plot or showing off, I just feel like some of the pieces of the novel were not entirely necessary. Some scenes seem to exist solely for exposition that reveals the vast swaths of knowledge of the author. Others seem to serve merely to add drama to the otherwise staid narration, like the revelation as to what exactly happened at one of those masked parties.
The Final Verdict:
That all comes across rather on the negative side, but I did enjoy the book and I would read something else by Elizabeth Percer, because I do like her writing. If you like Special Topics in Calamity Physics or books that make you feel cleverer for having read them, I suspect An Uncommon Education will be right up your alley.