This is the second book in the Dr. Rowena Halley series, the first of which I reviewed here. This one picks up right where the first one left off in following the career of Rowena Arwen Halley, the Russian language Ph.D. struggling to navigate a brutal academic job market as well as her own desire for a relationship. But, her heart is torn between Alex, another struggling post-doc, and Dima, the Russian soldier-turned-journalist who broke up with her and sent her back to the U.S. while he continued reporting on conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Dr. Halley has started a new one-semester teaching position, and from day one, is beset by annoyances, the most prominent of which is Jason, a student in one of her classes who wants to use her to help him fight a custody battle with his estranged Russian wife.
The start of the book is a bit slow, although it does give a good window into the dreary reality of academia. Where it really picks up is with the arrival of Rowena’s brother, Ivanhoe Elladan Halley, the rough-and-tumble Marine Corps officer recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, who comes to visit in the middle of the book. (Disregarding his parents’ decision to name him after Sir Walter Scott and Tolkien characters, he goes by “John” most of the time.)
John is my favorite character in the book. For one thing, his lines are pretty funny, especially his unsolicited blunt advice to his sister and his foul-mouthed contempt for her boyfriends, past and present. But he’s also a more complex character: a veteran who probably has PTSD but masks it with machismo, alcohol, and womanizing. He’s basically a good guy, but he’s been through some bad stuff, and it has taken its toll on him.
I won’t lie, the middle third of the book, in which John appears regularly, is definitely my favorite part. The ending suffers from some of the same issues as the beginning; namely, that it gives a very accurate portrayal of the current state of seeking employment in academia, particularly in the humanities.
There’s one other issue I have with this book. Unlike the first installment, which really was a mystery that needed to be figured out, here, the main conflict isn’t a mystery. The person who is obviously bad ultimately turns out to be… bad. Which is kind of a letdown. It’s not that exciting when at the climax of the story, a character turns out to be exactly who you thought they were.
But that’s okay. This is a character-driven book, more so than the first one was. The interesting thing is less about seeing where it all goes than how it gets there, and how it gets there is pretty interesting. Stark tackles a variety of social and geopolitical issues, from the overproduction of elites in American higher education leading to a glut on the academic job market, to the many ruined lives resulting from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, to the destruction of society at the most fundamental level as a result of people lacking basic virtues.
So, don’t go into it expecting some kind of plot-twist filled mystery. Instead, read it as a commentary on the many deeply-rooted problems in modern society. Read that way, it paints a vivid and memorable picture.
[Audio version of this post available below.]