In Jincy Willett’s 2008 novel, Amy Gallup teaches an extension class on writing fiction. She was once a writer herself: her first novel was published when she was only twenty-two, and she wrote a couple of decent novels after that. But when her husband died, her motivation died with him, and now she makes a living teaching all kinds of people to write. Though she knows she shouldn’t, she thinks of her students as types: the slacker, the jock, the lawyer. There’s the doctor who brings an entire novel in a shopping bag to the first class (a medical thriller, à la Robin Cook), and the guy who doesn’t really want to write but is hoping to get a date this way. There’s the talented young feminist and the sharp-eyed retired teacher; the overenthusiastic repeat student and the too-sweet housewife.
But these students refuse to be types. Despite her depression and reclusiveness, Amy finds herself enjoying them more and more: both who they are and what they have to say. They engage with each other’s texts in interesting ways, they listen, and they learn. They show up to class, even when their writing is terrible, not just wanting more, but giving more. They reveal more of themselves, showing what every writer (and reader) should know: that everyone is interesting, everyone has a story, no one is really a type.
Then the book really surprised me. Up until this point it was about what I expected it to be: a very witty novel about a writing class and its teacher, in the style of Jincy Willett’s short stories in Jenny and the Jaws of Life (of which Teresa wrote a great review a few months back, though I think I liked it more than she did.) Literary fiction of the rather static, quotidian-epiphany sort, with an extra twist of humor. To my surprise and great enjoyment, the book turned out to have an actual plot! Right under my hands, it turned into a mystery!
Amy discovers that one of her students is a rather nasty person. Cruel parodies of a student’s poem appear, and vicious (but amusing) critiques. Someone slips an ugly and obscene cartoon between the pages of the marked copies of a text. Amy starts getting frightening anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night. And then the violence escalates, all the way to murder. Amy and her other students — who have bonded through the class and through the attacks on them — must try to understand who the murderer is and the reason for his or her crimes.
I absolutely loved this book. It was funny — I laughed out loud, often — and I think anyone who has taught writing or enjoys good prose will find this book’s satire very enjoyable. But it was also poignant and emotionally true to life. I am a big fan of literary fiction that plays with the conventions of genre, and the fact that this book surprised me with a real mystery pleased me immensely. I can’t wait to read Jincy Willett’s other novel, Winner of the National Book Award (yes, that’s the title!)