The novel begins in 1986 at the Bonneville Creative Writing Program in the Midwest, where an intense group of students critique one anotherís poetry under the tutelage of Miranda Sturgis. A precise, sometimes harsh judge of her studentsí endeavors, Miranda embodies the eccentricity and particularity of creativity nurtured in academia. But Chang sheds any semblance of pretentiousness in the development of two primary characters, Roman Morris and Bernard Sauvet.
In the fifteenth week of the class, Roman has yet to share his poetry with the class - some of whom he labels acolytes - focusing on Mirandaís infrequent criticisms to claim the confidence to proceed with his career. Bernard is engaged in a more specific pursuit, an epic poem about the 19th-century exploration of Wisconsin. Embracing the poverty of his tiny rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan, Bernard becomes Romanís unlikely ally, each admiring Mirandaís economy of language, each married to a future filled with words.
Roman particularly craves Mirandaís attention and response to his work, as though his future will be purchased with her imprimatur. Reminiscent of mid-century novels of moody young men in thrall to older women, Roman is swept into a world more insular and rarified than that of the classroom, a place where his true voice is nurtured by lavish affection, experience and instinct. Neither teacher nor student leaves unscathed by a life-changing encounter.
Roman ensconced in the literary community as a successful poet after winning a coveted award, Bernard remains the touchstone of his past, but it is Miranda who takes root in Romanís soul, arbiter of his creativity, his confidence, the acting out of love and ambition, the devastating revelations and regrets that linger for a lifetime. In the blush of youth, genius and manhood, the future looms with promise and foreboding. For whatever memories remain of Roman and Bernardís days around the long table in a candlelit classroom at dusk, Miranda is the keeper of the secrets and the pain.
The author of this unusual novel sidesteps the arcane for a story that explores the universality of human experience and the inherent self-doubt of creativity. A young man comes of age, heady with accomplishment, humbled by friendship, only reluctantly accepting the lessons time bestows. The concept of craft versus talent remains intangible, what can be taught and what is intuitive. Though wed to former classmate Lucy Perry, Roman yearns for the solitude of his study and the purity of his work, where failure has no purchase and a clever phrase soothes an unquiet heart.
While Roman once looked to Miranda for authentication, his own precocious students consider a middle-aged professorís mentoring as their due, but one sign of changing times. Life is nothing like Roman has expected, Bernard gifted with greatness as Roman stands on the sidelines, perplexed. Above all, this is Romanís story, his reckless journey through friendships, petty jealousies, complicated relationships, the creative instinct and the foolish assumptions of a man blinded by hubris, only to face the consequences of a lifetime of mistakes. Chang takes the abstract, infuses it with truth and dares us to look the other way.