Elevate Difference

Crossing Washington Square

Some novels are quite naturalistic, but toy with magic realism. This book is the reverse: a charming, modern fairytale that just happens to have been liberally sprinkled with astute observations about life in the English Literature department of a large university.

Crossing Washington Square is a neatly crafted and satisfying story of two literature professors who approach their places within academia from different angles. Along the way, they have romantic encounters with several men in their faculty. Each woman’s very credible musings regarding these relationships are skillfully interwoven with comically awkward confrontations in and around the department. I easily related to the younger professor’s gaffes and passionate arguments as she settles into her new job. Author Joanne Rendell’s own teaching experiences are palpable in her excruciating descriptions of lackluster undergrads, interminable meetings and daunting responsibilities. I even felt a little guilty and a lot nostalgic about my own first year at New York University.

I’m sure the romantic entanglements are meant to be the focus and the academic arguments the subplot, but the heated debates about the pros and cons of critically examining ‘chick lit’ vs. ‘great lit’ from a feminist perspective were unique, and grabbed me from the first chapter. This topic is one of Rendell’s pet passions, and she writes from a cheeky and knowing place; she argues both sides in the voices of each of the co-protagonists with comic finesse.

While reading, I felt both admonished by the junior professor for dismissing Bridget Jones's Diary, and vindicated when the tenured professor counters that chick lit propagates sexist stereotypes. The whole controversy became so meta on page 199 that I laughed out loud: the young professor (with whom Rendell admits she identifies in the appended "conversation guide'"included in all NAL editions) says modern popular fiction shares commonalities with great books, and numbers the reasons!

She comes out in favor of books that are 1) memoirs loosely disguised as fiction, and 2) stories of young, clever women coming of age in the city. By that rationale, Crossing Washington Square itself gets to join the collection of worthy contemporary reads that reference the historical canon, and I suspect Rendell could defend this theory with poise and aplomb in front of the harshest of crit panels.

It’s hard to read a book that encourages literary criticism: I found myself looking more critically at this novel than I normally would. I tripped over a few clunky similes that interrupted evocative (and quite filmic. Hollywood, if you're listening...) descriptions of Greenwich Village, Bloomsbury, and both Sohos. Rendell, who is originally from the UK but has settled in the U.S., often puts British phrasing in the American characters’ mouths and toys with New York vernacular. The use of schlep in the narration didn't ring true to this New Yorker’s ears.

Last bone to pick with this otherwise highly likable novel: I could have done without the action taking place at so-called Manhattan U—that was a fantasy too far. We all know that NYU is the huge university on Washington Square. Can’t miss it. It’s a shame we live in such a litigious world that readers, writers, and publishers seem to have agreed to this particular contrivance.

Before I started reading, I was more on the side of the old school academics who are pitted against the Bridget Jones lovers as the backdrop of the book. The endearingly flawed characters and a well-crafted story won me over. I thoroughly enjoyed entering the world of this urban and urbanely written tale and look forward to Rendell's next novel.

Written by: Chella Quint, October 19th 2009