She has never strived for this job, but Naomi Roth has become the first female president of Webster College almost 20 years ago. With her daughter Hannah she has moved to the small place and turned the school into a competitor of the Ivy League Colleges. Admittedly, she was proud when also her daughter decided not to choose one of the big names but her college for her studies. When the popular lecturer Nicholas Gall is denied tenure track, students organize protest against the college’s administration. What Naomi welcomes first as a sign of caring and standing up for your believes gradually transforms into the worst crisis the college has ever seen. The leader of the student group is a young Palestinian student, Omar Khayal, who not only is charismatic and can thus easily gather people behind him but also has a history which is embraced by the media to cover the story: he fled the Israeli bombings which killed his family and made his way to one of the top schools, and now they want to expel him because he is fighting for his teacher – who is of African-American descent. A scandal is quickly produced and Naomi not only has to sail against the wind of the board but also of her own daughter who positions herself on the opposite side.
Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel starts slowly, we get a thorough picture of Naomi and Hannah’s life and relationship and also an idea of how Naomi’s situation at Webster was before the crisis. She appears to be strong and clever and cannot easily be shaken. Yet, this situation brings her to the brink of professional destruction and personal despair. The way the relationships become increasingly complicated is narrated in a convincing way. It is not only between mother and daughter, but also between Naomi and long-time friends that things get ever more difficult until all the years of their friendship are questioned. I really liked the protagonist because she is depicted as a complex character who is not without flaws but has clear convictions and a strong sense of justice and objectivity. On the other hand, she is also doubting and asking herself if she really can live up to her ideas and actually treats the students in a fair way.
Apart from his interesting study in the characters, the most striking aspect of the novel is how the truth can be bent according to one’s necessities. It is clear from the beginning that Nicholas Gall not only is culpable of plagiarism but also lacks all academic standards, neither did he publish something nor does he show adequate behaviour. Yet, Naomi’s morals hinder her from revealing anything of the secret tenure track process and she does not want to publish the lecturer’s misconduct. Without this knowledge, things seem to be quite different for the students and the media. However, the witch-hunt really starts with the story of the poor, heart-breaking Palestinian who had to go through so much in life and deserves to be supported not to be thrown out – but again, the public is not aware of Omar’s poor academic results and like in any other case, the college has to take action. Who can you defend your decisions if your strongest arguments cannot be said out aloud?
It wouldn’t a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz if there wasn’t a lot more to be revealed. Towards the end, the author has some nasty surprises for the reader which again offer another perspective on how things really are. I really appreciate her skill of playing tricks on the reader since it is great entertainment to uncover the different layers of the story.