Harvard professor Susan Lowell is ambition on two (long and well-shaped) legs. She's achieved every goal she's set for herself so far, she's married, has two children, has just won a Pulitzer prize and has realistic hopes of achieving tenure. The book she's written after extensive research in Africa is on Hatashil, a Somali rebel leader fighting against NSF, "the Mogadishu-bred, ruthless security agency."
She's adviser to David Ayan, the only Somali student in Harvard. She cultivates the acquaintance, but he's got nothing to offer on her topic. As a child he once watched an NSF operation from afar but hasn't met Hatashil or any of his fighters. His family in Somalia has no contacts with them, either. His only concern is to make the best of his time in Harvard and the most likely way to start a career seems to him to be accepted by one of the traditional final clubs.
The third main protagonist is Michael Teak, a 25-five-year old Harvard graduate who speaks several African languages fluently and officially works for the Animal Preservation Fund. In reality he is an Intelligence Operative whose order is to keep contact with and financially support Hatashil and his rebel fighters.
So what connects the three protagonists? Harvard? Africa? The author makes use of his knowledge as a student at Harvard, in fact, he graduated only two years before the publication of the novel (his third!). Life on campus is described in greatest detail, the different buildings and drinking holes, the rituals at clubs. The reader gets an impression of the elite society there. Yet, in contrast to the campus novels of, say, David Lodge, set in the world of British Academia, we don't learn much about the interaction of staff and their problems, it's more a glimpse from below, from the students' point of view. I find it surprising that they ever achieve anything academically and wonder how Harvard got its reputation considering that the students spend nearly all their time smoking, boozing, taking drugs and f*cking.
After reading the synopsis on Amazon I assumed that David would play a central rôle. Who can the title An Expensive Education refer to if not to him? An African who's from a different planet culturally in one of America's most prestigious educational institutions - that could make for interesting reading. Life on campus offers enough conflicts to weave a complex plot, but for reasons I can't fathom the author decided that wouldn't suffice and introduced the African topic as well.
Michael Teak carries most of it, a tough, intelligent, sexy guy straight out of a spy thriller. His story is captivating. For the first time in his career he doesn't understand the full picture and feels he may become the pawn of his superiors. He learns the hard way that his government's political actions don't follow humanitarian principles but only their own political interests. The Michael Teak story could carry a political thriller with the conflicts at the Horn as background, no Harvard capers would be needed.
The problem with the novel is that the different threads aren't intertwined convincingly and don't make a whole. It's as if the author didn't trust each thread to carry a story of its own. He can tell his yarn and get the reader's attention, but when I was immersed in, say, Teak's African adventures, I was repeatedly asking myself, "What does this have to do with anything going on at Harvard?" And vice versa. When I was involved in the goings on at Harvard, I couldn't for the life of me see a connection with the African rebels. It's possible that the author wasn't incapable of intertwining the threads, I'll give him the benefit of a doubt, maybe he thought he'd write a better novel by widening the scope. Sadly, what he produced has bombed.
There's one more thing I dislike about An Expensive Education and that is its vulgar language and graphic sex scenes. I know that students like to use swear words but I don't want to be reminded of the fact repeatedly. You're welcome to call me old-fashioned, but I think sex scenes should be somehow embedded (!) in the flow of the story and not jump out at the reader unmotivated. When Susan Lowell tells her husband about winning the Pulitzer Prize, she does this during sexual intercourse. We're only in the third paragraph from the beginning! I can see the slogan Sex Sells in big shiny letters on the wall over her bed. Readers who read the first pages of a book in a bookshop to decide if they want to buy it or not may get hooked if they're so minded. In my opinion it's cheap and should be below a writer who wants to be taken seriously. Maybe I should have looked up the author's age before ordering the book, after all, a twenty-something male doesn't have much else on his mind than sex, does he?
Maybe I should also have studied the reviews on Amazon. I didn't do it because I've so often found them off the point that I wondered if I'd read the same book. But in the case of An Expensive Education the two British and 19 American reviews are spot on, the average rating is two stars. Wikipedia mentions that there are "reviewers (who compare) McDonell to both Graham Greene and John le Carré." A blurb on the back cover of the novel calls the author 'A literary wunderkind'. Greene! Le Carré! Wunderkind! My back bottom.
An American Amazon reviewer wrote, "There are plenty of candidates for the pantheon of great writers. The critics don't have to invent more of them. What we are dangerously short of in this country are intelligent critics." I couldn't agree more.