You Deserve Nothing (Book Review)

Will Silver is a man who seems to have everything.  He is an American living in Paris, a successful and popular teacher at the International School of France. His students adore him and he loves his work. And then it all goes wrong. 

First-time author Alexander Maksik tells the story of Will’s fall from grace from three different perspectives. We have the narrative of the teacher himself, told several years after the events he is describing,  and then the voices of  two of his young students, Marie de Cléry and Gilad Fisher. These three points of view, interwoven through the text,  provide a rich experience of the same story.

One of the triumphs of the novel is Maksik’s rendition of Marie’s experience: he captures the mindset of a teenage girl to perfection. Excitable, demanding, insensitive, loving, vulnerable – Marie is a brilliantly -portrayed and entirely believable character. Only a teenage girl could go straight from her lover’s bed to a girl-friend’s house and stay up all night talking:

She asked me where I’d been. I rolled over onto my side and looked at her. I mean I looked at her right in the face, right in the eyes, and told her everything.

Will himself is a flawed character, a man whose intelligence and charisma are not matched by self-knowledge or the capacity to love . He is at his best in the classroom, where he inspires his students to read, to question their beliefs and to challenge one another’s assumptions. Gilad, amongst other students, idolizes him and strives hard  to be ‘worthy’ of Mr Silver’s regard. But, of course, life is more complicated outside the school grounds, and the teenage boy must slowly learn to come to terms with the fact that none of the adults whom he loves and admires is perfect.

You Deserve Nothing is one of the best ‘coming of age’ novels that I have read for a long time. It received generous praise in many reviews  and was listed in the New York Times Best Novels of 2011.  Writer Alice Sebold was instrumental in editing and publishing it, and she is unequivocal in her praise of Maksik’s work.

However, there are dissenting voices – and the objections are on moral, not aesthetic, grounds. I only discovered this after reading You Deserve Nothing, and I strongly recommend that you do the same. Enjoy reading this beautiful novel, and then think about the controversy seething  behind it.

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