The Lessons is a well-written, well-paced and extremely readable novel that appeals to readers on a number of different levels. Firstly, its wry wit, vividly drawn characters and page-turning plot make for a great read. I finished the book in one sitting, finding very swiftly that it was going to be impossible to put down until the last page.
Secondly, the novel is peppered with literary allusions that will please those who enjoy spotting references. Alderman weaves in nods to Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; fans of these novels will find it extremely hard to resist The Lessons' charms.
The literary homage is even noticeable in the names of the characters. Mark Winters's name echoes that of Henry Winter in The Secret History, and Daisy's name can be read as an allusion to Gatsby, especially given her fate. Alderman also appears to indulge in a little post-modern playfulness with her depiction of Franny, the curly-haired student from Jewish North London; the general outlines of this character form a near self-portrait of the author.
Some reviewers have criticised the novel for drawing too heavily on its literary ancestors. In places the novel treads a fine line between paying tribute to its predecessors and being derivative of them. Aspects of the plot echo The Great Gatsby, and the shadow of Brideshead hangs heavily over the novel. However, it is refreshing to see an author confront these literary giants instead of shying away from admitting their influence, as many do.
The Lessons does escape the shadow of these earlier novels and beats its own path, especially in the depiction of the relationship between James and Mark. It is an honest and sometimes brutal account of the way money interferes with love, as well as of the relationship between love, need and obsession. The culmination of their relationship, coming at the point of Mark's most abject despair, is heartbreaking. The novel also does a great deal to dispel the rose-tinted view of Oxford student life conjured up by Brideshead, revealing the hard work, stress, sexism and snobbery to be found there. It is a worthy addition to any reader's shelves.
Read a brilliant, insightful blog post by Alderman in which she imagines an interview between herself and an incredibly hostile reader.
Newspaper Reviews of The Lessons: