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A Witty Tale Of Academia And Angst

Apr 14, 2009

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Lynn Neary

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast hosted by NPR's Lynn Neary. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

It makes sense that Emily Fox Gordon would choose a college campus as the setting for her first novel, It Will Come to Me. Her father was a professor of economics at Williams College, and she grew up surrounded by the academic world in the college town of Williamstown, Mass. She first wrote about her childhood in her memoir Are You Happy? A Childhood Remembered. And though she describes herself as an overweight social misfit with a difficult father and a mother who became an alcoholic, she was not altogether unhappy.

But after a failed suicide attempt at the age of 18, Fox Gordon did end up in a mental institution. She wrote of her three years at the Austen Riggs sanitarium in her first memoir, Mockingbird Years. Fox Gordon actually longed for insanity back then.

"I had swallowed whole the ideology that connects madness to beauty of spirit," she writes. Being a mental patient, she felt, would "invest me with significance." She brought that penetrating self-honesty and her keen skills as an observer to bear on life in a "therapeutic community," where patients were free to come and go, and many, like herself, suffered more from a vague sense of ennui than true mental illness.

Now a professor at Rice University in Houston, she uses those same skills to nail down campus life in It Will Come to Me. The narrator is Ruth Blau, the wife of a professor at the Lola Dees Institute in Texas. Ruth once had a potentially promising career as a writer. She's now 56, and when a well-known writer arrives on campus, Ruth sees a chance to revive her long-quenched literary ambitions. But Ruth is also mourning the fate of her only son Isaac, a homeless man who is mentally ill. In her first work of fiction, Fox Gordon finds a way to write about the real tragedy of mental illness at the same time that she skewers the foibles of academic life.

Fox Gordon read from It Will Come to Me at the McNally Jackson bookstore on March 23. Her editor, Julie Grau, senior vice president and publisher of Spiegel & Grau, joined her to discuss the novel The New Yorker says shines with "wit, complexity and detail."

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