If you participated in post graduate studies particularly in the humanities you know these characters inherently. Some of them are earnestly seeking “their truth” and yearn to discuss what they believe to be complex ideas. Some want to impress their professors. Some want to sleep with their professors. Some achieve that goal. Some want to become validated for their giant brains, to be the wunderkind–the voice of a generation to speak on a topic in a way that no one has ever done before…and some people want to leave poverty and the weight of a family behind.
The story jumps between present day and the past. In the past we meet Mac. Mac’s father walks out on her, her mother and her autistic sister Lily who requires a lot of care (the descriptions of Lily are very cookie cutter/ “Rainman-esque” descriptions of what it means to be on the spectrum and the less it’s discussed, the better). Mac’s mother was a nurse, who struggling under pressure becomes addicted to drugs and has multiple relapses (again, the broad strokes of descriptions make Mac’s mom just a “junkie/former junkie” rather than someone battling addiction issues. Mac meets a new girl from NYC named Gwen. Gwen has everything that Mac doesn’t, this really just seems to entail money and niceness. But Gwen is ridiculously wealthy and really enjoys Mac’s company. They become best friends and Gwen shares pretty much everything that she can with Mac without trying to make it feel like charity; of course, Mac never feels that way. When Gwen and Mac head off to college, Mac has to attend a “lesser” university whereas Gwen attends Columbia. Most of this is told from Mac’s point of view so while Mac feels like she deserves to be there, she never mentions that Gwen also deserves to be there. The two girls work hard in undergrad and decide to attend The Program at a very prestigious college together. Mac hopes that her family will not pull her home as they tethered her to them while she was an undergraduate student. Mac is eager to climb her way to a better life, how she does that is part of the mystery.
We then flash forward 10 years after graduate school. Mac is now going by her middle name Claire and is the keynote speaker at some academic conference. It’s as she’s about to take some star stuck undergrad from Harvard to bed that she sees her old friend Gwen, Gwen who Mac (now Claire) hasn’t spoken to since their time at school together. We learn Gwen never finished “The Program” because of the “accident” and over time, going from past to present, we learn what really happened those ten years ago.
Reading about “The Program” and how everyone behaved (students and faculty) I felt creeped out. I never went to a prestigious college because like Mac, I came from humble beginnings but the pretention and all the same behaviors were there. Academia, regardless of the level breeds a certain level of haughtiness, navel gazing and ass kissing it appears. The mystery and all the reveals (because there’s another B plot woven in that I didn’t really address) weren’t exactly cataclysmic but interesting enough. The final reveal however, was too much for me (I understand that’s vague but it would provide too much of a spoiler). I’d recommend this book for someone who wants to remember the tense sweaty moments when you wanted to shine while discussing or writing about like literary critcism as theory where we all want to talk about the potential of a fourth dimension and the metaphors of hyperspace and whatnot and had others ripping your papers apart publicly to gain approval of the professor who would hand out seeds he picked at Windermere when you basically scored points for Gryffindor and people were fighting to win these f’ing seeds!!! (ok, that was oddly specific because that was me [ I wasn’t the one fighting for seeds but I was definitely a haughty little biotch] and it is truly cringeworthy stuff to revisit!). Honestly, the book was kind of exhausting and Mac/Claire justifies herself a little too much.