We begin with our narrator reading through a 17th century diary of a British artist, making a curious and potentially groundbreaking discovery that the famous, male author, might in fact be a woman. This provides a standout clue that helps to finish off the narrator’s dissertation in art history.
I seem to keep reading books like this this year, and so far, only Possession by AS Byatt, has been very good (it’s great), while others like Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd and The Thirst by Jo Nesbo, have been middling. This book is good in some ways and middling in others. What I actually think here is that the discovery and what will become the actual fallout later is less interesting than the stresses of writing a dissertation on the mind and body of grad students. The stress of grad students is real and serious, but they are treated in exploitative manners and there worth is seen entirely through their, often lucky, discoveries. And all this is go into a terrible job market.
But because this novel involves a kind of literary trick, one the book jacket spoils, but doesn’t show up until very late in the novel we get an inaccurate view of what this book is actually about. It’s grad school, and it’s about the stress of a fruitless pursuit; it’s about sexism in art and academics, and it’s about the ways in which these supposedly progressive spaces keep circulating back. So we’re left with a choice between a gimmick and a real look into this life — not all that different from the novel itself.