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Review: Crossing Washington Square


Crossing Washington Square

by Joanne Rendell
New American Library
copyright 2009
Rating: 3 out of 5

Summary from the back of the book:
Professor Diana Monroe is a highly respected scholar of Sylvia Plath. Serious and aloof, she steadfastly keeps her mind on track. Professor Rachel Grey is young and impulsive, with a penchant for teaching popular women’s stories like Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Devil Wears Prada, and for wearing her heart on her sleeve.

The two conflicting personalities meet head to heart when Carson McEvoy, a handsome and brilliant professor visiting from Harvard, sets his eyes on both women and creates even more tension between them. Now Diana and Rachel are slated to accompany an undergraduate trip to London, where an almost life-threatening experience with a student celebrity will force them to change their minds and heal their hearts….together.

My review:
I read two glowing reviews of this book within one week’s time: S. Krishna gave it 4.5 stars out of 5 and stated that “it is a book not to be missed” (this coming from someone who reads approximately 500 books a year!!) and Bonnie from Redlady’s Reading Room said that it “truly exemplifies women’s fiction.” I immediately put the book on my TBR list.
When I read the summary in the bookstore a few days later, I knew that this would be a book for me. I used to live two blocks from Washington Square and would take my daughter on daily walks through the park. If I could live my life over again – knowing what I know now – I think I would like to pursue the academic lifestyle. The main characters were living the life that I find attractive and their personality differences would make for a interesting story line. I have taken two groups of students to London in the past, and I was anxious to read about the characters’ adventures in my most favorite city “across the pond.” I immediately placed a hold on the book at my local library and waited patiently for about 6 weeks until it became available. I rushed home and immediately began reading. I wanted to be transported into another time and place, but alas, the book just didn’t grab me the way I had hoped.
Now, I do not believe this failure to meet my expectations is the fault of Joanne Rendell’s writing ability. Actually, I found her writing quite fluid, her character descriptions (especially internal monologue) fully developed, and her ability to weave a multi-faceted tale engaging. I think the failure lies in my expectations. I think Bonnie was right in saying that this book “exemplifies women’s fiction” and I am obviously not the target audience for women’s fiction. I think I was looking for more academic discussions of the “classics” vs “pop fiction” and perhaps more conflict within the academic arena; what this book delivers is more personal relationships — not just between these two female characters, but within each of their personal lives as well. I know that many, many of you enjoy these kinds of novels – and I am sure that this will suit your needs to a T. For me, however, I found that I would skim through these parts, hoping to come across more literary conversations in which I could stop and savor the morsels intellectual discussions.
I managed to highlight quite a few pages, however, that I would definitely like to read and re-read. Most focused on Diane’s character, the classic literature professor. She and I are simply two peas in a pod, as evidenced by this passage:

….Diane raised her head from her hands and felt the sadness beginning to subside. She looked around her book-lined office. These books, these thousands of books, all of which she had read, protected her now, and it felt good to be cocooned by them. She twirled a little in her seat and ran her finger over the books on the closest shelf. They felt cool under her touch and, as her fingertips traced their embossed, familiar titles – Ariel, The Bell Jar, The Colossus and Other Poems – she smiled. This was a good way to live, she thought, safe amongst her books. (page 27)

Another passage that summarized Diane’s initial thoughts of “romance” literature, I am afraid, echo my uninformed opinion as well. Perhaps some day I will learn to open my mind and appreciate it as Diane does towards the end of the book:
Up until now, romance novels for Diana were merely soft porn for desperate housewives. Moreover, such books were poorly written, littered with adverbs, and recycled trite stories about heroines swooning over devilishly handsome men. Portrayals of women within their pages were problematic, and the books themselves were bad for women readers – at least according to the Diana of old.

But now, as she found herself looking down at the book in front of her, Diana realized she’d been hasty in these assumptions. ….

The more Diana thought about this, the more she realized that Love Everlasting’s plucky heroine was the perfect antidote to such tragic women in literature, as well as to those tragic female writers like Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf whom Diana always revered so much. No wonder women across the world loved romance novels and bought them by the droves. In these books they read stories about strong women, good women, smart women who weren’t relegated to the sidelines of the story or killed off at the novel’s end. (page 255)
On another note, I also think that my overall opinion of the novel was somewhat jaded (is that the right word?) by the addition of the celebrity student plot line. The fact that these girls were twins – from Hollywood – attending “Manhattan U” was just too similar to the Olsen Twins attending NYU a few years back. I could not shake the image of Mary Kate and Ashley from my mind each time these characters entered the scene. Again, I would have preferred more intellectual depth of character between the two professors, but I know that is my own personal quirk.
All in all this book was not a bad read, and I know for some of you, this would be a GREAT read. But for someone who is not a fan of romance or apparently “women’s fiction”, this book was a little too much fluff for my personal taste.

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