Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Season of Second Chances, Diane Meier

Joy Harkness is sick of her life in New York as a professor at Columbia University. She wants a change, and serendipitously the opportunity opens up when a well-known feminist author invites her to Amherst to join a new educational group to discover a new philosophy of learning. She moves there, finds a new home, and begins to recreate her life: her ‘second chance’. She falls into a wonderful new community of interesting individuals, all living fulfilled lives, and not only gets to enjoy her new teaching position but also remodel a unique Victorian home. In the end, she discovers that her previous life was narrow and unfulfilled, and her new life allows her to expand and enjoy the world to the full.

It’s a love letter to academia. The novel is easily readable and fast paced, and there’s no lack of descriptions for the details of her transformation. It might appeal to many readers as an imaginary escape from their own lives, to be read with a Restoration Hardware catalog and a fan of paint swatches at hand. It is a very pretty book…I loved the font and the block printing styles.

That said, I hated the book on so many levels. First, it would appear that the ‘second chance’ she needed was meant to be: her NY house sold in four days, far over the asking price, and she found her new home instantly. Her new job paid far more than she imagined. The first contractor to come along was not only a savant-like expert on all things Victorian, but his price was under her budget, and the remodel was a quick and smooth production. Do you see where I am going with this? Realism is not to be found.

Joy’s new friends are all wealthy academics who pride themselves on their tolerant love of others, community, and family. They accept her unhesitatingly, and it appears the entire community wants to assist in her transformation. Evenings of gourmet suppers with perfect food and wines, stimulating conversation, and constant supportive murmurings fill Joy’s new days. Her new job is also perfect: coworkers who gladly share duties without complaining, well-behaved students, and gourmet lunches made by a professor (in her spare time) and brought in for the staff. The only nod to their academic work is rearranging book shelves and deciding where the fresh flowers should be placed, with some occasional paper-grading over wine.

I kept waiting for one of the enlightened community to be an ax murderer, just to liven up the cloying sweetness of it all.

The biggest problem, of so many, was the treatment of the academic community towards the talented craftsman who remodels her home back to its original splendor. They recognize his talent, but are quick to suggest a course of study that will allow him to teach and join their ranks. He’s simply not living up to his potential in their eyes and they are troubled by his lack of ambition. He’s just not good enough. In fact, every character in the novel that leads a productive life is an academic; the only ones who aren’t are the craftsman (who lives with his mom and is emotionally stunted), a wife-beater, and a vindictive old woman. In other words, the flawed people are uneducated. It’s as if Lassie saves the family from the fire, saves Timmy from the well, and yet is put to sleep because she’s not purebred. The elitist agenda is obvious and awkward.

The house Joy remodels, with Teddy’s assistance, is an obvious metaphor for Joy’s life. It starts out decrepit and run down, but eventually is restored to beauty and luxury. It’s no coincidence that towards the end, when she discovers Armani couture and is counseled to live life to the full, the clothing she purchases reflect the colors used in the home. Even her new lipsticks (oh yeah, we get to hear about lipstick colors, wallpaper samples, and the benefits of skillful makeup) seem to coordinate. It all falls into place, with never a concern about money issues, family problems, misunderstandings with friends, or illness. The lack of any credible conflict dilutes it into more of a fashion article than an interesting novel. Sure, some bad things happen, to other people, on the periphery. These serve only to emphasize the wonderful nature of the academic village. Amid this she sprinkles Feminist anecdotes, Henry James references, and treatises on private education that leave you snoring. As I said, though, the font is lovely.

Thanks to Jason Leibman of Henry Holt for the Review Copy.


  1. Sounds like a nice frivolous read, not to be taken too seriously. The book's sitting on my desk ready to be read...sometime this summer.

  2. This sounds especially painful -- it's always sad when the best thing you can say about a book is that the font is nice!

  3. I had some issues with this book, too, but enjoyed it overall. You're dead right: it's a love letter to academia. That definitely got to be a little much toward the end! And I agree that the font is great, as is are the ragged-edge pages -- love that!