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James has been used to being very clever at school, and it is a shock for him when he goes to Oxford University to find there are lots of people who are more able than he is. He is already struggling when he falls and seriously hurts his knee, and he is also very lonely. Then he meets Jess, who invites him to a party at Mark's house. Mark soon invites Jess, James and other friends to move in to his run down mansion.
I expected and wanted to like this book more than I did - I suppose I was drawn to it by nostalgia for my student days and by the setting in a city I visited a lot as a child and young adult (my mum's parents lived there).
Mark is very wealthy, happy to share his money and privileges with his friends, but also quite emotionally messed up. He is gay, and although Alderman to be fair does not suggest this itself is the root of his problems, it does worry me that the gay characters I have come across in recent reading are all a bit dysfunctional. He also has quite an odd relationship with his religion - he comes from a Catholic family and still feels his religious belief is important in some way. However, James as the narrator of the story and/or Alderman as the author suggest this is important in some way but never really explore it or draw the reader into the significance of this fully.
Apart from the larger than life Mark and the narrator James, the other characters in the story remain rather two dimensional and never take on much of an existence of their own. James himself is often drippy and pathetic, someone who is always looking for suggestions from other people to follow.
After university, Mark suddenly gets married to the sister of one of his friends and has a child - family life and fatherhood seem to be something he wants very much, and there is the suggestion that it links into his religious beliefs, but again, James doesn't really understand it and so nor did I as a reader.
The Lessons is well enough written that I would like to read more of Naomi Alderman's work - I already have a copy of her first novel Disobedience which sounds far more original and appealing than this one.
This is an edited version of a review by me which originally appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk, and it has also appeared on www.ciao.co.uk