Crossing Washington Square
After a couple of so-so romances, I often turn to Chick Lit. Although not every Chick Lit book is fabulous, even the mediocre ones tend to have slightly different foibles than mediocre romances. Happily, Crossing Washington Square was better than mediocre. It has an academic setting, and one of the main characters studies popular literature. She’s very romance friendly, and the impassioned arguments she makes are definitely something romance readers will relate to.
Professor Rachel Grey is new to the staff at Manhattan U (fictionalized version of NYU). Her best-selling book about popular women’s fiction and women’s book groups landed her a spot on Oprah and her new job at the prestigious university. But she can’t help but feel that it’s starting off badly. Her students seem to be bored to tears, and her visions of engrossing discussions with her fellow faculty members have failed to materialize. The faculty seems to be dominated by the old guard (who think that anything written post-Hemingway is hardly worth bothering over).
Diana Monroe is a tenured professor at Manhattan U, and an expert on Sylvia Plath. She seems to be everything that Rachel isn’t; her students love her, she’s always serene and put together, and she has little use for “popular literature.” But though she doesn’t know it, she and Rachel share a common problem: Man trouble. Rachel has an aimless love life that’s going nowhere. She broke up with her boyfriend over a year ago, and there’s been no one since. Diana was happily married (she thought) until her husband, a Classics professor, ran off with his young and comely grad student five years ago. Right now Diana is seeing Mikey, a computer tech for Manhattan U’s English department. But she keeps the relationship a secret – mostly because she’s afraid of what people would think.Diana and Rachel end up clashing in several ways. Professionally, they have completely different views about literature and scholarship, and they end up arguing at a faculty meeting and a student presentation. Personally, they both have romantic entanglements with Carson McEvoy, a visiting professor from Harvard. Their differences seem nearly insurmountable, and matters come to a head when they both head to London with a group of students over the Thanksgiving holidays.
Although Diana and Rachel both have multiple love interests during the book, men are not the focus of this story. Really, it’s about the relationship between Rachel and Diana. They learn a lot about themselves through the course of the book, and they also learn from each other’s strengths. The London trip proves to be pivotal for both of them.
I was prepared to dislike Diana, mostly because I was sure that fictional character or not, she was exactly the sort of woman who would look down on my life choices (marrying young, spending significant amounts of time reading and reviewing romance novels, etc.). Eleven years as an editor and reviewer have given me plenty of opportunities to serve as a romance cheerleader – and admittedly, a healthy dislike of literature snobs (and people who ask, “Why don’t you just write your own book?”, as if what I’m doing is not worthwhile). For most of the book, I did find it a little hard to sympathize with Diana, especially since many of her problems seemed to be of her own making. But she came around, and so did I.
Rachel, I liked immediately. I think any romance reader would. An academic who has the nerve to compare The Bell Jar with The Devil Wears Prada? Sign me up. Literary bonhomie aside, I would have liked her anyway. She’s bright but unsure of herself at times, stumbling her way through a new academic and social circle. She’s willing to fall into love, and equally willing to fall out of it when necessary. She says what she thinks, even when it might not be the best idea. I loved her.
The only real hang up I had with the book is that at times the conversation sounded a little forced – mostly during the academic discussions. I almost felt like a was part reader, part lecturee. Still, I found Crossing Washington Square to be well worth my time. I’d love to hear more about Rachel and Diana in the future, and would certainly consider Rendell the next time I need a break from straight romance.