On the Page: Susan Choi and Julie Kavanagh

ChoiMy Education

Susan Choi

(Viking, 304 pp., $26.95)

Susan Choi’s fourth novel is a steamy campus romance that doubles as a coming-of-age story. In a twist on the typical narrative—nubile co-ed falls hard for caddish prof—here an ambitious literature grad student, one Regina Gottlieb, attending an unnamed Syracuse-like university, falls hard for her professor’s wife. Like many love triangles, this one is compulsively readable, and Ms. Choi quite literally milks her many lengthy sex scenes for all they’re worth—in a Grapes of Wrath-esque moment, Regina drinks at her nursing lover’s breast (“it tasted queasily of vegetation”). But all the steamy amorous activity can get a bit tedious, and there are other problems—like the story’s climax, which involves a layer cake of infidelities, and its denouement, which manages to be at once far-fetched and irritatingly pat. (Another quibble: the movie Pulp Fiction, which came out in 1994, is mentioned in a section of the book set in 1992.)

But on balance, My Education’s virtues outweigh its faults. This is ultimately a novel about two women in transitional moments in their lives—one in the drunken emotional train wreck of early adulthood, the other equally disoriented in her new motherhood—told with empathy and a keen sense of irony. Quitting classes, lovesick Regina takes a “very part-time and poorly paid job … doing research for a leprechaun-like retired professor” who tells her, “Bring me all sorts of quotes about longing.” She doesn’t manage to find any. —Sarah Douglas

kavanagh On the Page: Susan Choi and Julie KavanaghThe Girl Who Loved Camellias

Julie Kavanagh

(Knopf, 288 pp., $27.95)

As far as muses go, few have been as durable as Marie Duplessis. Among those who were inspired by her, most important was Alexandre Dumas fils, Marie’s real-life lover and the author of The Lady of the Camellias, a thinly veiled fictional account of their affair and a great commercial success that launched the writer’s career (somewhat hilariously, his previous book—a collection of poetry that featured an elegy to Marie—sold just 14 copies). The novel is hardly required reading now, but it was so popular that it inspired a hit play—which directly inspired Verdi’s opera La Traviata—and countless adaptations, from the George Cukor film Camille, starring Greta Garbo, to the most perverse spin-off to date—Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

Julie Kavanagh marches into an already crowded field with her biography of Duplessis, The Girl Who Loved Camellias, but she does so with grace, reconstructing the short life that caused all this sensation. Duplessis was something like a more charming precursor to Gertrude Stein, hosting a salon wherein Franz Liszt might have fallen in love with her and, on the occasion of her death, prompting Dickens to famously remark, “All questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers … Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important.”

Despite all her renowned admirers, Duplessis was a powerhouse of her own, as this book demonstrates. Her early death reminds one of the supernova burst of many a fallen young celebrity, but even still, as Ms. Kavanagh says, “I think a large part of Marie’s appeal was the fact that … she made her own luck.” —Michael H. Miller