I began An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer on July 2nd, and finally finished it today. Normally a novel of three hundred and thirty-something pages would not take me the better part of a week to read, but for all its potential, this book failed to hold my attention for long periods of time.
The premise seemed interesting enough. A young girl named Naomi growing up in the Boston area has a mother who has been chronically depressed for as long as Naomi can remember, and who is practically a stranger due to her reluctance to share any information about her past or her family. Naomi barely knows her grandparents and has a mostly nonexistent relationship with her mother, leading her father to try very hard to fill the void. He pushes her toward academic pursuits and tries to foster a sense of strong ambition in her, encouraging her desire to be a doctor, which is only strengthened when he suffers a non-fatal heart attack early in the book.
Naomi tries to form a sense of identity as she grows older, without much friendship or any family ties other than her parents. From this reasonable starting point, the story loses its direction rather early on.
Characters wander in and out of the book, some with fanfare and some with such subtlety that I found myself very surprised that a particular character became a larger part of the story later. There did not seem to be much logic in how the author introduced or abandoned her characters. Certain new acquaintances who seemed promising would fade out of the narrative, sometimes never to be seen again, or they would reappear after you had given up on them. Others seemed to be no more than extras, bodies to fill up a scene, and then they would resurface at an unexpected point in the story and become inexplicably integral.
The plot was similarly confused and aimless, meandering from idea to idea with such nonchalance that I was left wondering what, exactly, the whole point of the book was.
During an unrelated event, without any preamble, a young Naomi begins a tennis game with her father, and becomes dedicated to playing tennis regularly and well. Where did that come from? Then, as she prepares to go to Wellesley college (to which she applied seemingly because it was what was expected of her, and her acceptance to which is treated with little significance), there is much attention paid to a tennis audition of sorts that might earn her a coveted place on the university’s team – but when the match is postponed due to weather, the author seems to lose patience with that particular storyline and allows it to fall by the wayside; thus, no further mention is made of any rescheduled match. Was there a rematch? Did Naomi lose? Did she attend at all, or completely lose interest in tennis? If she didn’t go, why not? How can an author just allow her focus to wander in such a way?
The entire novel seems filled with similar ambiguities. Once I got used to the idea of Naomi moving in a different direction, the author would once again seem to forget where she had been going with that particular thought and stumble off towards something else entirely.
The various pieces of the story were enjoyable by themselves, but the book was so disorganized that I found myself frustrated and impatient for it to be over. Frankly, I am tempted to call the book a waste of time, with one exception – the Shakespeare Society. I was unaware of such an organization prior to reading the book, and reading about it made me wish I had known about it much earlier, and I even entertained thoughts of what it might have been like to attend a school like Wellesley and have experiences like Naomi’s. The concept of the Shakespeare Society was very interesting to me and nearly made up for the disjointedness of the novel.
Ultimately, however, I would suggest steering clear of this particular book unless you find yourself with a great deal of time to fill and very few other options. There are plenty of worse books, but there are also many better.