The Devil and Webster
It must be incredibly difficult to be a college administrator these days. Imagine the myriad of social and political issues that one would have to deal with in these strange days. Jean Hanff Korelitz was once a college admissions officer and understands the collegiate universe better than most. She turns her experience and keen eye for detail and drama to her second novel, THE DEVIL AND WEBSTER, about a college president, the first female president of the fictional but familiar-seeming Webster College. Naomi Roth is faced with a dilemma that is at once both completely modern and a question for the ages.
The main theme is entitlement: How does an esteemed academic and former radical deal with a complicated and sensitive situation when a young Palestinian student becomes the leader of an outdoor protest encampment and shocking acts of vandalism destabilize the progressive campus? Naomi has her work cut out for her as the situations move well beyond her grasp, losing control of her work life as she tries hard to keep her own social and family circles safe from this same adversary. THE DEVIL AND WEBSTER plays like a Gothic novel --- the unknown predator and the desperate and struggling audience that is being attacked but is not able to understand truly what is going on.
"There is so much in this novel, a thoughtful and beautiful work.... This is highly recommended reading, but don’t forget to put on your thinking cap. You’ll need it."
This is a morality tale, too, a story about social debate, in a world where laying blame elsewhere is the easy and acceptable way of dealing with a situation. Korelitz takes the safe intellectual atmosphere of the private college campus --- an enlightened, privileged place --- and turns it on its ear. Of course, she is also able to explore the idea that these supposedly safe places are often the hotbeds in which these important but complex issues can be discussed and debated.
Naomi is a fighter, a strong but flawed woman who values her job and loves her kid, and is trying to do her very best in a world where her best isn’t always appreciated. Her daughter Hannah, a brilliant young woman with intense intellectual and political ideals, is a perfect amalgamation of every smart kid at every smart school in the country. Watching the mother-daughter dynamic in the midst of Naomi’s larger trauma is a great way into a bigger situation. (Oops, I forgot to tell you that Hannah goes to Webster, having been admitted without her mother’s help, as the college becomes a more astute and desirable choice, on the Ivy scale). Although there is so much going on, the reader connects very intensely with these women and watches the global situation throw its acid rain on the tiny campus.
There is so much in this novel, a thoughtful and beautiful work. It’s not a beach read; rather, it’s the kind of book that really delves into controversial topics and uses one woman’s journey as a way for all of us to see what we would be like in the same situation. In this day and age when people have difficulty dealing with so much of the trauma thrown at them during every 24-hour news broadcast, it is comforting to deal with some of these issues in a wonderfully written and riveting book like THE DEVIL AND WEBSTER.
This is highly recommended reading, but don’t forget to put on your thinking cap. You’ll need it.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on April 4, 2017
The Devil and Webster
- Publication Date: March 21, 2017
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 1455592382
- ISBN-13: 9781455592388