Take a look: he’s a nerdy Jewish kid from New Jersey, known as a “nice guy,” intellectually passionate but awkward in social situations. He’s starting his first day as a Harvard freshmen. How could I resist this 2016 novel by New York TImes columnist Teddy Wayne?
The answer is, I couldn’t.
But do I recommend it?
Well, that depends. I hate spoilers, but I do have to say that the ending will be disturbing to a great many readers, especially female ones, and the usual drive to identify with the protagonist will cause cognitive dissonance in a great many readers, especially male ones.
And if you attended Harvard in the ’60s, as I did, you will inevitably be looking to compare and contrast. You’ll find a lot to compare but not much to contrast, aside from the obvious points like having coed dorms and having a more diverse student body (though Loner doesn’t do a whole lot with the latter observation). Another contrast is the effect of the Me Too movement, which has an explicit effect on several plot points.
That said, we could look at the novel through the standard critical lenses. Character development is reasonably convincing and interesting as long as we’re talking about David Federman, the protagonist — not so much if we’re talking about anyone else, except for a surprising and convincing revelation about his love interest. Setting and sense of place are also well done, whether we mean the Harvard dorms, classes, dining halls, or general ambiance. The social milieu is out of my league, since I never had contact with final clubs or other upper-class trappings of Harvard; is it accurate, especially all the under-age drinking? Probably so, but who am I to judge? The plot of the novel is thin, but serves the purpose, since it’s more a psychological study than anything else. The style is smooth, even though I’ve never been particularly fond of second-person novels. For better or for worse, it was clearly influenced by J.D. Salinger and Philip Roth. There are several memorable scenes:
- When David’s English professor forgets who he is, shortly after singling him out in a large class because of his excellent essay.
- The big reveal about his writing papers for his crush to submit as her own.
- The attempt to learn salsa dancing along with his frosh gf.
What we have here is not exactly a psychological thriller, not exactly a campus novel, not exactly a coming-of-age story, but an interesting combination of all three. Just beware of my warning above.