Released back in January 2019, Talent by Juliet Lapidos has been starting at me from my bookshelf for quite awhile now. I took it with me on my family Christmas vacation, that in-between time where my reading commitments are minimal, and I can finally get to some of those books that are long overdue. Normally I would have given away this book long ago, but the premise of it piqued my interest – all about a young woman who had high praised heaped upon her as an undergraduate, struggling to live up to other people’s expectations as she languishes in her sixth year of her PhD. As someone who abandoned her hopes of being an English professor early in my undergraduate career, I felt the same way about that career as I do about this novel – why is this relevant? And other than a few die-hard academics who love to read, who is the audience?
Anna Brisker is 29-years-old, living in a small college town and experiencing mounting pressure from her thesis advisor, family, and friends to finish her dissertation. She began her college career with high expectations, scoring incredibly high on her essays and marked as ‘one to watch’, but much to everyone’s disappointment, she lacks the drive to simply get it done, and procrastinates her way to nowhere. At the urging (and veiled threat) of her advisor, she seeks out a case study, and through sheer coincidence makes the acquaintance of a woman named Helen who is the niece to the late, critically-acclaimed writer Frederick Langley. Helen claims to be the rightful owner of Langley’s last-known writing, but is currently embroiled in a legal battle with the local college library over ownership rights. These notebooks present themselves as the key to Anna’s thesis (or so she thinks) so she’s eager to befriend Helen AND read these texts for herself. Anna believes there is a reason why Langley stopped writing so suddenly in his lifetime, and hopes to explore this theory in her paper, but proving her proposed argument is harder than it seems.
Lapidos has set some clear challenges for herself in writing this book. For one, the protagonist and narrator Anna is unlikable. She’s lazy, lives in a beautiful apartment that was paid for by someone else, and clearly doesn’t understand social norms, expecting people to help and care for her when she’s unable (or simply resistant) to doing the same for them. Although not impossible to make a page-turning read with an annoying main character, it’s definitely more difficult.
Another challenge is the fact that this plot is quite insular, revolving around the academic life, an environment many aren’t familiar with because its seen as elitist or obscure. More than once Anna acknowledges that only a handful of other people will ever really read or care what she is trying to write. In fact, it’s suggested that achieving commercial success is almost antithesis to the point of writing as some artists would prefer to remain obscure and unreachable by the general public. As a book reviewer who enjoys a good plot-driven novel, I’ll admit that I tend to favour books that have reached commercial success, but the author doesn’t necessarily make an argument for or against this, she just depicts characters who aspire to be tenured professors and nothing else.
Lapidos is clearly a strong writer – the limited dialogue and inner thoughts of Anna are quite funny, and the development of the relationship between Helen and Anne is surprising, even suggestive at times. I anticipated the ending, many will, but it still had an air of melancholy that I appreciated. Despite all these positive elements, I found myself listlessly turning the pages, I only finished it because it wasn’t terrible enough to abandon. There’s a few positive reviews of this one, but unfortunately it just didn’t meet my earlier high hopes.