Published September 15th 2011 by John Murray
Yes, I knew the story behind the book when I bought it. But I tried not to let it influence my reading too much and I am not going to spend too much time on the question if writing the book was morally wrong. The teacher-student-love-affair is not a new topic in literature / movies /etc. and I think it has lost most of its scandal potential. Just to be clear, I don’t think it is okay for a teacher to have an affair or any kind of inappropriate contact with his or her students. I just think that as a literary theme it has been done a lot. So, one should not have been expecting anything new or mind-blowing from this book. But somehow I did and accordingly I was disappointed.
Plot wise it is just this, a student falling in love (or lust, or whatever you want to call it) with a student. The novel explores the notion of teaching and the implications, contradictions, and duties of someone in the role of the teacher. It also gives us a coming-of-age story that shows how important those figures are during the formative teenage years.
The main character, teacher William Silver, is pathetic in his need to be loved and adored by his students. He seems to be only interested in human contact if his conversational counterpart is his inferior; if he can teach and be seen as intelligent and charming. When it comes to romantic relationships he is not interested in women his own age, who might be his intellectual equals. He runs from them or keeps them at a safe distance. This made reading the parts written from his point of view cringeworthy and created a lot of eye-rolling on my part.
There are two more narrative perspectives in this novel – two students of the international High School where Silver teaches. One is Gilad, a boy taking the advanced literature class Silver offers. We get to see how an impressionable mind and character reacts to that glamorous personality Silver is projecting as a teacher. Through this character it is possible to even see some good can come of it; that some students can be changed for the better. Gilad does consider is life and the decisions he has made and he changes course. He finds a friend (albeit another ambiguous character) and he learns to stand up to his violent father. However, through his eyes we also see how someone you put on a pedestal can fail; how your heroes are people too. By the way, I only noticed that Gilad was a boy when I was seventy pages into the book. Doesn’t really speak for the author’s skill in creating varying voices.
The other student whose perspective we get is Marie, the girl Silver has his secret affair with. Both, her and Silver’s narratives are unreliable. And we get both sides of their story without knowing who lies the most – because they both do, without question!
All three narrators and all secondary characters are kept simple and fairly shallow. Yes , there is development and progress in them, but still they seem like templates from a writers’ seminar. The story is in no way original and does not introduce anything new into the teacher-student plotline. You have it all – the instant attraction, the getting to know your body (including the first ever orgasm of the innocent girl), the pregnancy and abortion, the end of the affair by discovery, the doubts and fear of discovery on the part of the teacher, the seductive phone messages, the playing-hard-to-get… and so on and so on.
The novel is neither badly written nor badly structured; it just doesn’t offer a new or interesting perspective on the theme. And it probably did not help my reading experience that I watched Daydream Nation while I was halfway through the book; the movie’s plotline shares a lot of aspects with this novel.