Friday, July 17, 2009

Life After Genius: Another Cheerful Work

I finished Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby a couple of days ago. It was the other seven-day book I checked out. It was not as depressing as Bufalo Lockjaw, but not what you'd call a pick-me-up, either.

The book is the tale of young Theodore Mead Fegley, a genius from a small Illinois town. He has recently fled from college on the eve of his presentation of his work on the Riemann Hypothesis to the mathematical elite and also of his graduation at the young age of 19. His parents, whose expectations for him are sky-high, are not overly pleased to see him, especially since he won't tell them why he's there or what happened. His uncle is downright furious to see him.

Bit by bit, we learn why as we travel back through Mead's life: a life defined by his mother's sky-high expectations and strict regimentations, consisting mostly of hard study and cruelty from his classmates. He is the son of the local undertaker, with a dorky first name, the youngest in every class, and strictly discouraged from maintaining any sort of social life. One can only imagine (and understand why he immediately adopted his middle name as his first when he left for college). Mead takes us through it all. The destruction of his science project at age 12 by some older kids, his mother's almost violent reaction to the only C he'd ever earn, the envy he felt towards his same-age, much-cooler cousin Percy, and of course the events that led up to his sudden departure from college.

It's hard to craft a decent novel based on a "secret", but M. Ann Jacoby has done it. Throughout the beginning of the novel, all the reader cares about is why Mead has committed this act of supreme self-sabotage. Especially once you get to know his mother better, whose picture is next to the word "domineering" in the dictionary. But then, you start to get interested in Mead. How so many people had invested so much in him. How ripe for exploitation he was. How the most advanced mathematics came easily to him, but basic social skills were elusive.

The rest of his family is pretty interesting, too. It comes out that his uncle hates him because he holds him responsible for Percy's recent death. His aunt's seeming neutrality turns out to have disturbing roots -- she's not coping with the loss of her son well at all, and not very much in touch with reality, so not really able to form an opinion. During the few days over which the book takes place, Mead takes his place in the family, and comes to see what a part of it he was all along, despite feeling isolated his entire life.

If you've almost forgotten about the driving events of the story by now, you're not alone. Towards the end of the novel, it wasn't that I'd lost interest in them, but that another story had started to emerge that was equally compelling. By the time Jacoby wraps up the original story of manipulation and betrayal, you realize you pretty much knew all the facts. Well done, indeed. Still, I'm taking a break from my library pile to spend some time with some more cheerful fare in the form of the James Herriott books.