Marie’s Reading: “Dear Committee Members” by Julie Schumacher

dear committeeI love the concept of this novel: a tale told in epistolary fashion, but not just any epistles.  These are letters of recommendation from a snarky, arrogant, and fed-up English professor, tired of how many of these letters he’s made to write for students and colleagues.

Many of the letters are one-off jokes, but mostly they carry through the story of Professor Jason Fitger, trying to assist the budding career of a student of his.  Fitger believes this student to be a genius (his novel is a reworking of Bartleby the Scrivener,  set in a 1960’s brothel), but nobody else seems to agree.  As the letters go on, we learn more and more about Fitger and his background and relationships, as well as his failed writing career.  The tone and wonderful voice in these letters, coupled with what we learn about Fitger, helps to round him out and turn the book into a nice little character study.

I was surprised to find myself touched at the end.  There’s a lot of heart to this novel which, on the surface, appears to just be a long joke about academia and one arrogant dude writing hilarious passive-aggressive letters.  But the last few letters go deeper into real emotions and motivations after a dramatic event, and it’s wonderful how well it works.  This book is witty, character-driven, and has a nice dose of satire.  And, as I said, Fitger’s voice is incredibly well-done–you laugh even as you realize you probably wouldn’t like him very much if you met him.  And you even begin to understand him a bit.

A fun novel with plenty to entertain humor fans, teachers, and anyone who’s ever had to write an LOR.   If you like this one, you might want to pick up The Lecturer’s Tale, James Hynes’ novel about a professor at a Midwestern university who discovers he has magic powers after having his finger re-attached after an accident.  Nicholson Baker’s slightly meta The Anthologist would also be a good choice–it’s about a failed poet trying to write the introduction to an anthology.  The character is fun and you learn about him in a similar way as you do Fitger.  If you enjoyed Fitger’s character voice, you might get a kick out of Ignatius Riley, the unlikeable star of the wonderfully funny A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

ETA: I was telling my husband about this post, as he also read this book, and he asked, “What about Book for a readalike?  That one is also funny and an academic satire.”  Husband is right.  I should put the guy on the Readers Corner payroll.  Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin also has a separate story playing out in the footnotes, to hilarious and metafictional effect.  Give that one a try as well!

–Marie

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