The Short Version: Jason Fitger, a creative writing professor at a second (or maybe third-)rate university in the Midwest, has reached a low point in his life. His writing career is kaput, his romantic exploits all too public, and he’s besieged by requests for letters of recommendation. So here, then, is the 2009-10 academic year (with a bit of 2010-11) as depicted through those letters that he must bring himself to write.
The Review: Ah, the letter of recommendation. I have a fond (albeit, at the time, oddly terrifying) memory of a favorite high school teacher telling me that if I didn’t get into college, it wouldn’t’ve been because of her recommendation. I’ve always wondered what those letters might say – the letters I’ve requested over the years from friends and teachers and professors. And, of course, once you go down that rabbit hole, you start to wonder: what do these people say to one another outside the immediate context of the purpose of the email (e.g. the recommendation part)? You know your professors all had conversations going on above your heads – via paper letters/notes, emails, secret hand signals, etc – and you can’t tell me you never wondered…
Julie Schumacher delivers what I have to imagine is a pretty good approximation of what everybody imagines their professors (or co-workers) are sending out during the day. Yes, it has an academic bent – but Professor Fitger’s acerbic commentary about the ongoing repairs in his building or the ineptitude of management in general will appeal to anybody who has ever worked with anyone else, ever. A perfect example just occurred at my day job, just now: a colleague just walked by, asking loudly if “anyone else hear[s] that high-pitched whine?” Several people chorused that they did and someone offered to email our operations team to find out what it was. I expect that email will share some resemblance to the letters of Professor Fitger.
He’s having a tough time of it, of course. The English Department is facing massive cuts, the higher-ups have installed a sociologist as interim chair, and the aforementioned building nonsense is happening all around him – not to mention his romantic life is in the tank after an ill-advised reply-all. Oh and, of course, the letters of recommendation, which pepper this novel at random (but perfectly timed) intervals, providing a brief respite from the ongoing ‘story’. It’s these moments where the book may shine the brightest: just a page or two worth of silliness, with no purpose other than to make the reader laugh.
There are certainly moments of humanity, where Fitger must finally make amends with those he’s burned or spurned in the past, and Schumacher does go to some lengths to make the novel feel like there’s a whole world behind it… but I can’t help thinking that it didn’t need all that. Yes, it’s fun to try and figure out what was said in response to one of Fitger’s letters (he rarely sends emails, although those are also included – as are online form responses, although I wish the layout designer had opted to make these all look different instead of pretty much exactly the same) and you can’t help but feel nice at the end when Fitger, still grumpy as ever, arrives at what you might call a ‘better place’ in life. But I won’t remember those moments – I’ll remember the angry one-liner, the particularly well-barbed insult. I had hoped to see a life develop out of the letters as opposed to seeing the letters track the outline of a life. The latter isn’t such a bad thing; it just isn’t as potent as the former.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. A super-fast read and definitely hilarious. Get this for your professor or your boss or even just your own inner grump: the deliciously crafted put-downs and drier-than-dry-martini wit on display is worth the price of admission. The arc of the book is relatively predictable and it does, in the end, seem a little too ‘constructed’ – but who cares, when the getting there makes you laugh so hard?