The Learning Curve, the forthcoming second novel by Mandy Berman, might as well have the subtitle, “a modern parable for the privileged woman,” such is the impression the reader has after finishing this ambitious and, ultimately, frustrating novel.
Among the dizzying amount of information covered in the plot, Berman’s characters navigate personal traumas, sexual politics, frat houses, European countries, visiting professorships, motherhood, alcohol abuse, crushes, failing marriages, failing research projects, failing relationships (romantic and otherwise), etc., etc.
In fact, Berman’s novel covers so many topics that it feels like walking into the brain of an author working on five different novels at once. One need only to read Berman’s acknowledgments to see the surprisingly multifarious research that went into writing The Learning Curve.
In some ways, the parable-feel of the novel is appropriate. During a college seminar called “Sex, Sentiment, and Sympathy,” Fiona and Liv, the two student characters, learn about 18th-century stories that cautioned their readers about the consequences faced by women who dared step outside social norms. Fiona reflects later that these cautionary tales apply to our current treatment of women (Monica Lewinsky is her example). Indeed, the connections between these 18th-century “coquettes,” and the characters themselves are engaging, and one wishes Berman would have spent more time on these developments, rather than swiftly moving on to new territory.
Strikingly similar to this novel is The Red Word, by Canadian author Sarah Henstra (winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award). The two novels both place the female student in dialogue with seemingly incongruous campus circumstances: advanced literary seminar vs. raucous frat party, feminist declarations vs. questionable sexual encounters with sketchy dudes, hagiographies of beloved female professors vs. obsessions with “bad” boys. Henstra’s novel is triumphant in portraying contradictory scenarios and deftly abandoning the reader to weigh the ethics of the characters and their decisions. Berman’s novel, on the other hand, pushes the reader to inauthentic conclusions (i.e. “lessons learned”), using characters who are too busy filling their assigned roles to really resonate.
The stimulating discussions of Berman’s characters and their self-reflective thoughts are lost in an excessive amount of exposition: two sisters share a glass of wine while having a personal conversation. Is it really necessary to justify why one of the women is drinking? (She’s in her third trimester, so it’s safe, Berman tells us.)
Readers looking for a drama-filled campus story will find pleasure but will get lost in the many digressions Berman takes. Those looking for more social commentary and fully articulated characters will be disappointed.
Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.
The Learning Curve – Mandy Berman
Fiction – Random House – Publication Date: 28 May 2019