Some books are easier to lean into than others. I know, context is key here. Yet, despite the subjective sentiments attached to that statement, most readers can relate to the idea of finding “that perfect fit,” in terms of one’s literary preferences. As situated individuals, ideological conviction and lived experience often form the basis by which we assess the value of literature. That said, contextually speaking, Mark Prins’ debut novel, The Latinist, is easy for me to like.
Set in the ivory towers of Oxford, this is the story of Tessa Templeton, a PhD candidate and graduate assistant to world renown classicist, Christopher Eccles. The basic premise is rather simple. Tessa is in her final semester at Oxford. She’s finishing up her dissertation while patiently waiting for a callback from any of the myriad of institutions she’s applied to teach at. In the midst of this waiting, Tessa’s long term boyfriend, Ben, concedes to the demands of dating a doctoral candidate and abruptly ends their relationship. Shortly after the breakup, Tessa receives an anonymous email that reads, “You might want to reconsider asking Christopher Eccles for a recommendation letter in the future.” Just beneath this ominous text, Tessa sees a thumbnail of a rendering of Chris’ recommendation letter. Phrases like, “Tessa has made strides from a rocky beginning to her doctorate,” and “[w]e met more regularly in her first year than is normal with the students I supervise,” and “sometimes she is hindered by the tendency to be argumentative” are scattered throughout the document. This incident sets the stage for what turns out to be a thrilling, page-turning tale of suspense, lust, and the power of a determined soul.
Well, that last bit was a little dramatic, right? Still, this book is quite the read, especially for a debut novel.
A major plot thread woven throughout this narrative involves Tessa and Chris’ relationship. At the heart of Chris’ less than flattering recommendation letter is his desire to keep Tessa close. In short, he doesn’t want to share Tessa, thus his willingness to resort to sabotage. Having just ended a long-term relationship himself, Chris has developed feelings for his most prized graduate assistant. All throughout the book one finds references to Tessa’s superiority over her classmates. Chris has groomed her to be the top of the class, and to make huge waves in their discipline. In the midst of all that grooming, romantic feelings have blossomed. The problem is, the romantic feelings are one sided, thus leading the reader to one of finer aspects of Prins’ storytelling: Chris and Tessa’s relationship dynamics serve as a meta-narrative of Tessa’s academic pursuits.
To be more exact, Chris and Tessa’s story is a reimagining of her dissertation topic, which centers on Ovid’s classic take on the Apollo/Daphne myth, as outlined in his work Metamorphoses. That is, Tessa is studying an ancient story about a god whose unrequited love forced a nymph to drastic measures (i.e., turn herself into a laurel tree). Does that sound familiar? It should. This is Chris’ and Tessa’s story, minus gods, nymphs, and laurel trees. The groundwork for this story is laid out in part one of the book. From that point on, Tessa’s drastic measures begin to unfold, and they do so in a rather epic manner.
This story is captivating, to say the least. Prins’ writing style suits my tastes–sharp, witty, and intellectually stimulating. His pacing and prose are interesting. He takes his time in developing the points he wishes to make, and he does so in a somewhat untraditional way. He moves back and forth between both perspectives (Chris’ and Tessa’s), and doesn’t stick to a chronological telling of most stories. Again, it takes a while to get to where he’s going. That said, when he gets there, it seems worth the cost of admission more times than not.
Going back to where we started, I resonate with this story. Anyone who has experienced the rigors of grad school–especially in more competitive disciplines (e.g., humanities) –may be able to resonate. Additionally, I’m a sucker for myth. Thus even without the stellar writing, this book would have great appeal. This is a solid story that takes a simple premise and adds layers of complexity by incorporating rich and meaningful expressions of storytelling and well developed, empathetic characters. So, if any of that sounds appealing to you, this might be your next great read. You can pick it up in the New Adult Fiction section of the library.