April 2005

Loring Ann Pfeiffer

fiction

The Professor's Daughter by Emily Raboteau

I’m not exactly sure how first novels get buzz. I guess it starts with a publisher deciding that a particular book is accessible enough to sell big, and continues with that publisher solidly getting behind said book -- placing ads in strategic places, slipping promo copies into the right hands, etc. Sadly, such a process seems to devalue such things as, say, talent. Case in point: Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. After catching glimpses of this first novel’s snazzy cover in nearly every periodical I consume, I decided I’d give it a try. I’m not usually one to buy books in hardback, but I certainly am a sucker for boarding school lit, and since every ad I saw proclaimed something reasonably good about Prep, I thought it might be worth its $16 Amazon price tag.

Four hundred pages later, Prep had been plenty of fun -- a beach read perfectly New England-ized for a chilly end-of-winter day -- but it had in no way been as good as the buzz. And what made particularly clear Prep’s lack of all that-ness was that, only a few weeks before, I had read Emily Raboteau’s first novel, The Professor’s Daughter, and had been left in a state of rapturous adoration such as I have not experienced since I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake almost a year ago. Where Prep tells a story, The Professor’s Daughter weaves one -- sings it, in some cases. The Professor’s Daughter’s characters were the kind of richly described creations who can actually make me feel things. Raboteau’s writing is devastatingly beautiful. And yet, The Professor’s Daughter has received very little attention, particularly when compared with the outpouring Prep has gotten. It’s true that a couple of weeks ago the San Francisco Chronicle deemed “Raboteau’s sensitivity to life and to people... nothing short of astounding,” but such a sentence, in one newspaper book review, does not amount to the heaps of praise this book is worthy of. The Professor’s Daughter is so much more than "astounding."

Raboteau’s book is primarily the story of Emma Boudreaux, a character whose name and spirit bear such strong similarities to those of the author that it is impossible not to read the novel as autobiographical. While finishing her first semester at Yale, Emma’s outlandish older brother Bernie pees onto a train rail and electrocutes himself, falling into a coma that brings Emma’s life to almost as thorough a halt as it does Bernie’s. Since they were tiny, the two have navigated the politics of their mixed-race parentage together, having received almost no guidance from their black Princeton professor father or their restless white mother. As such, Bernie’s coma renders Emma unable to understand herself, her family, or the larger world; without Bernie, Emma simply no longer knows who she is.

The Professor’s Daughter stands as Emma’s attempt to figure herself out without Bernie, a journey that takes her, and the book, to regions far-flung and disparate. One chapter travels deep into the mind of a recent African immigrant, living in Princeton with her academic husband, haunted by the city’s handling of a deer crisis. Another voyages to Louisiana, in the effort to gain a clearer picture of both the harrowing boyhood of Emma’s father and the history of the Boudreaux clan. One chapter consists entirely of a term paper Emma writes for a Postcolonial African Novel course. Another delves into the mind of Bernie himself, spinning into words the sounds that govern his coma-ridden body. Unsurprisingly, given the number of shifts in narrator and subject matter, this 276-page book often ends up reading more like a short-story collection than like a novel. And yet, that is not ultimately a bad thing. On the contrary, The Professor’s Daughter’s hops from tale to tale only render it a more realistic search for identity, as though with each new chapter, we see Emma trying on a different understanding of herself or the world.

Raboteau is a gorgeous writer, one whose prose is not only delicious but empathic -- she writes emotion in a way that just works. Indeed, in my mind, The Professor’s Daughter stands as the first novel against which all other first novels in 2005 should be compared. Because her book is serious and sometimes difficult, Raboteau may not get the press that someone like Curtis Sittenfeld does, but my-oh-my does she deserve it.

The Professor's Daughter by Emily Raboteau
Henry Holt
ISBN: 0805075062
288 Pages