Crossing Washington Square by Joanne Rendell

2009. NAL Accent. Paperback. 310 pages.

From: Giveaway from Fizzy Thoughts

In a nutshell: Established professor, Diane Monroe and younger ‘rising star’ professor Rachel Grey, find themselves in a territorial battle, especially as they hold opposing views on the place of women’s fiction / chick lit in the pedagogical canon. Both of them are also in complicated romantic entanglements as well. Things come to a head when they both accompany a study abroad group to London.

Review: I entered to win this book in the giveaway because I worked in higher education (specifically student affairs) for several years. Although the book did give some shout-outs to academic commonplaces such as bored undergraduates, listservs and The Chronicle of Higher Education, I actually did not find much recognizable in the setting overall. I have never been a professor so that accounts for some of it.

But then, some of the professors’ decisions had me scratching my head. At one point Rachel becomes the faculty advisor to a graduate student, only a week before the student presents at a seminar. The hand-off is done in a most casual fashion. At least in the graduate programs I knew, a first year tenure-track professor would not be assigned as the faculty advisor to a doctoral student. Also it seemed very ill-advised to have the student switch advisors right before a major presentation. My reaction to this plot point certainly showed that my student affairs instincts are still alive and well!

But my credulity was stretched by other aspects of the novel too. Rachel Grey (deliberately written as a modern-day version of Marianne Dashwood) and Diana Monroe were not real to me as people. Their character development happened abruptly. Changes and epiphanies were laid out clearly and dully to the reader. Resolutions to the characters’ problems come about too neatly. The literary discussion central to the novel seemed lacking in real depth.

Most annoying of all, however, was the fact that both Rachel and Diana spent most of their time mulling over and obsessing about the men in their lives (both of them have exes, plus two additional men).

One part that I did appreciate was when a stranger listens to Rachel’s anxieties about her love life and her career, and the stranger points out that Rachel should not see herself as a failure, as she is a full-time professor at a respected university. I appreciated the nod to Rachel’s privilege. Rachel was extremely lucky to have snagged a job as a tenure-track literature professor. Most of her peers are probably either running the adjunct circuit or have given up on working in academia altogether.

Anyway, I finished it because I owned it, but I would have abandoned it otherwise. Others have liked it, so it might be it just wasn’t up my alley and also that I went in with my particular views on what academia is like. I still want to read a good fiction book from the perspective of administrators or professors in academia, but I think I want one that’s more messy, where the complicated issues of academia are not as glossed over, as I felt they were in Crossing Washington Square.

Excerpts of others’ reviews:

Devourer of Books – “Crossing Washington Square” deserves a great deal of the credit for my warming to ‘women’s fiction’ over the past year, between Rendell’s smart writing and the message she delivered about the value that can be found in books that book snobs tend to turn their noses up at.”

Fizzy Thoughts – “I think Rachel’s ideas and her passionate defense of popular literature is what saves this book and makes it worth reading.”

My Cozy Book Nook – “I think I was looking for more academic discussions of the “classics” vs “pop fiction” and perhaps more conflict within the academic arena; what this book delivers is more personal relationships — not just between these two female characters, but within each of their personal lives as well.”

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Crossing Washington Square by Joanne Rendell

  1. I’d forgotten I’d read this. So yeah…not so memorable.

  2. Amy

    I have this book on my tbr list but after reading your review I’m not so sure I want to read it. I like that the main characters are professors of literature but it doesn’t sound as if they’re very strong or well-developed characters. It also sounds as if more time is spent on their personal lives and it would irritate me to no end to have to read as these women obsessed and thought about and talked endlessly about the men in their lives and the ones who used to be. That kind of behavior is soooo annoying!
    I’m very glad I read your excellent and honest review of this book. I think it’s one I’ll skip!

  3. softdrink – That certainly is an indicator!

    Amy – Glad my review was helpful, although looking back at the excerpts that I chose from others’ reviews, I feel like I was remiss by not including a more glowing review (although the excerpt from Devourer of Books is positive). I certainly stand by my opinion (and definitely there is too much made of the various men in the characters’ lives at the expense of more interesting subjects), but for an opinion quite opposite of mine, there is S. Krishna’s review: http://www.skrishnasbooks.com/2009/09/crossing-washington-square-joanne.html

  4. I’ve heard mixed reviews on this one but it definitely does interest me. I do enjoy the idea of a book that involve so much academia. I just love stuff like that.

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