Fiona was in her 30s when she fell in love with her university department chairman, a powerful and married older man. Now, nine years later, she's suddenly aware of Sigmund's wispy gray arm hairs and sagging muscles. When he confesses he has no plan to back her upcoming promotion, fondness departs.
Lynn Miller describes Fiona's next weeks in a witty first novel that is part academic satire, part middle-aged coming-of-age story. The Fool's Journey, set in Austin at a school obviously meant to be the University of Texas, shows how the foolish protagonist makes her way to self-knowledge. Her guides: other women professors, a reader of tarot cards, some gay friends and the writer Edith Wharton.
What makes the novel fun are the people Fiona knows. Miller creates excellent outlandish academics. Fiona's buxom friend, Bettina, who teaches seminars about Virginia Woolf, exudes Eros to such a degree that she attracts women as well as men. Her husband, Martin, a quiet former botany professor, provides contrast. Various slick deans and department chairmen appear, occasionally in romantic roles. (One seduces both Bettina and Fiona, though not at the same time.)The Fool's Journey kills any notion that life in the ivory tower is primarily intellectual or, as Daphne, the tarot card reader, tells Fiona, "Much of your conflict is bound up in the academy, an edifice supposedly built on ideas but powered by emotion the quest for recognition, greed for accolades, the envy of others' success."Miller has a fine, understated wit that allows her to skewer even what she seems to revere. For example, at the end of Fiona's tarot card session, she's thinking to herself that knowledge is priceless when Daphne says, "That will be seventy-five dollars. If you prefer, I accept all credit cards. Except Discover."The novel is like a visit to Austin. Fiona takes off for a holiday at Port Aransas, submerges herself in the frigid water of Barton Springs and attends parties in Hyde Park. You wonder why Miller calls the school Austin University instead of UT. Could it be because she teaches performance studies at UT and wants some distance? Anne Morris writes from Austin, Texas.