Oh how I loved this book.
It’s a quiet book, a coming-of-age story about a brilliant only child who thinks she can save the people she loves from harm.
Author Elizabeth Percer introduces us to Naomi Feinstein when she’s a young girl, an introverted, lonely child who is extremely close to her father. (Her favorite pastime is going with him to visit the John F. Kennedy Historical site in Boston, the home where Kennedy was born.) One day while they are at the museum, Naomi’s father suffers a heart attack, and although he recovers, she determines to become a cardiologist someday, to learn all about the workings of the heart to prevent such things from happening again.
With this goal in mind, and with her father’s encouragement, Naomi studies almost obsessively with the goal of attending Wellesley College. I can feel the hopes they both have for Naomi – that once she gets to Wellesley, things will fall into place for her, she will make friends, her social awkwardness will disappear, she will retain her brilliance but also become more like a “normal” young woman. But Naomi finds it hard to penetrate the layers of social strata and competitive behaviors that abound. She is still lonely, still on her own, lost in her quest for knowledge.
Until a chance encounter leads her to The Shakespeare Society, the oldest “club” on the Wellesley campus. The passionate, unconventional students she meets in this ancient group with its rituals and secrets, introduces her to another world and another version of herself. Then one of her new friends is unjustly accused of misconduct and is threatened by the scandal, and Naomi – who wants so desperately to save her – is forced to learn the most difficult of lessons in all of her education.
Naomi’s penchant for trying to “save” people – especially her parents – drives this novel. Her mother, chronically ill and depressed, hovers around the edges of Naomi’s childhood, and becomes a major figure at the end of the novel. Her one childhood friend, Teddy, who needs her friendship as much as she needs his. Her college roommate, Jun, who chooses to leave the college rather than bring any hint of dishonor to her family. In her lonely, awkward way, Naomi tries to save them all.
What she learns while caring for her mother during her final illness, what is finally the most important lesson of all, is that she must first save herself before she can make a difference to others.
I began to tell her everything I could think of that was real and foreign to me about the Wellesley outside of the house, how that realness and foreignness together kept me there, forever trying to solve them both. And then I told her about everything before then, about being her child, how I sometimes thought I’d already spent my life missing her, how I’d marveled at her beauty and poise and wondered how it could be mine, how I finally understood why she hadn’t wanted me to be a part of her sickness, a part of the uglier parts of her life. And finally, I told her how I’d tried to save Teddy, then Jun, and had always been trying to save her, and that by not allowing herself to be saved she had probably saved me.
Elizabeth Percer (a Wellesley graduate, and past president of The Shakespeare Society), has given us a debut novel that is poignant and full of heart. An Uncommon Education is a wonderful and wise book about learning the lessons we most need, about finding our way in a world where we never exactly fit, about being able to accept our human limitations.