Dennis may appear at first glance to be a stereotypical jaded academic, but Johnston avoids cliché, revealing his protagonist to have much more going on beneath the surface. He offers readers real reasons to want to spend time getting to know this guy. Both Dennis and his best friend and coworker, Eileen, face common struggles that have too often not been part of the public conversation: Dennis’ sense of inferiority is heightened by his ex-wife Deirdre’s ongoing emotional abuse, including online harassment and stalking. Film scholar Eileen, meanwhile, is subjected to professional scrutiny despite her stellar publication record: “Her opportunities were limited by her sexual orientation as a faculty member in a relatively small college town that didn’t even have a gay bar.”
While Johnston’s characters face myriad real-world challenges, unpredictable supernatural forces are also at play, such as a series of Civil War-era apparitions that leave Dennis wondering who has really invited him back to Detroit and why. The story at times moves slowly, and the sharp commentary about the business of creativity is likely more exhaustive than many readers might hope. But the book is incisive, and narrator Dennis is engaging, making Johnston’s tale of professional ambition, midlife aggravation, and treacherous love affairs delightfully unpredictable.
Takeaway: A sharp, engaging, wholly unpredictable novel of ambition and academia.
Great for fans of: Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, Jane Smiley’s Moo.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A