I’m an anxious person. If there is something to worry about I’m there worrying about it. I’m currently worried that Federer both will and won’t win his match in the second round, I am nothing but contradictory. (By the time this post goes out I’m sure I’ll have some clarity.)
So while I dive into books to escape a fluctuating reality, I love it when a book makes me anxious. If it’s making me anxious it’s making me feel. The Lessons by Naomi Alderman is one of those books.
“Mark gathers around him an impressionable group of students: glamorous Emmanuella, who always has a new boyfriend in tow; Franny and Simon, best friends and occasional lovers; musician Jess, whose calm exterior hides passionate depths. And James, already damaged by Oxford and looking for a group to belong to.
For a time they live in a charmed world of learning and parties and love affairs. But university is no grounding for adult life, and when, years later, tragedy strikes they are entirely unprepared.” GoodReads.
If James hadn’t slipped and damaged his knee in his first year of university his life would have been different. Instead of meeting patient Jess, mysterious Emmanuella, on and off again Franny and Simon and the rich enigmatic Mark he would have probably achieved academic success, go on to teach and lead a relatively bland life. At the moment of James’ accident, his life changes forever.
I didn’t like James, his weakness repelled me and at times I wanted to throw the book across the room.
It was James’ nature that hit too close to home, inducing my anxiety. He is a needy teenager, absorbing the highlights of his friend’s lives, sitting on the periphery of the action like Richard in The Secret History. Unlike his peers, James doesn’t know who he is at university, or more accurately, he doesn’t have any goals. He unintentionally relies on his girlfriend, boyfriend and friends to be his lighthouse. I too was that teenager, I didn’t like much outside of what my friends liked – or people I wanted to impress liked – and to go from that to finding yourself, it’s a long journey.
There are lessons in life that each of the group learns independently of one another, later than less privileged of their age and at alternative moments to the others. Whether it’s James finally leaving Mark or Emannualla suddenly understanding the toxicity of mass wealth.
The writing, which felt so different from The Power, thread my me into the story, while the characters drew me in. I would have loved 200 more pages just so Jess, Franny, Simon, Emmanualla and Nicola could have been fleshed out more. James and Mark are very much the focus of the story. There are also deeper issues that could have been explored with more depth, but we understand Mark through the eyes of James, and if Mark refuses to confide more in him there is only so much the reader can know.
I came to love James by the end when he finally wakes up from his daze and realises he needs to find out who he is, even if that means starting from scratch.
The Lessons was a beautiful story of friendship, love and discovery. Of knowing and not knowing who you are and accepting yourself. And, I suppose, allowing others to love you for who you are and not what you can give them.
Have you read The Lessons?