Sunday, August 27, 2017

Book Review: 'The Devil and Webster' by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Naomi Roth is the president of prestigious Webster College in Massachusetts, a two hundred and fifty year old institution that has weathered its share of controversy. Once the bastion of white and prosperous Christian males (minorities need not have applied in the past), Roth now prides herself on her school's reputation for academic excellence, intellectualism, open dialogue, and multiculturalism. Naomi, who is unmarried, has a daughter, Hannah, a sophomore at Webster. Everything seems to be going Naomi's way, until suddenly, it isn't.

When a popular black professor is denied tenure, a student protest erupts, spearheaded by a Palestinian student named Omar Khayul. Omar and his fellow demonstrators pitch tents on Webster's grounds, and refuse to communicate with the administration. Matters escalate, and Naomi, in spite of her tolerant attitude towards the protestors--she was an outspoken advocate for various causes back in the day--becomes the target of vicious and false attacks. Once the media outlets get wind of the story, Naomi fears that she will be unable to bring Webster back to a semblance of normalcy.

"The Devil and Webster," by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is an involving tale about a bright, self-confident, and forward thinking woman who is faced with a crisis she cannot handle. Truth, alas, is the first casualty when a war of words breaks out, and Naomi is hampered by the fact that the tenure process is confidential. The author, who writes intelligently thoughtfully, and elegantly, makes the point that being on the side of the angels does not protect an individual from false accusations and venomous attacks. We live in a rage-filled environment these days; everyone has his or her own agenda and fearlessly pursues it. Although we care about Naomi and admire her fortitude under fire, the book could have been even better had it been told in the first person from Naomi's perspective; had Korelitz filled in some glaring holes about Naomi's shadowy past; and had the author fleshed out certain characters, such as Omar Khayul and Naomi's friend, Francine, who is Webster's Dean of Admissions. Although it deals with meaningful themes concerning identity politics and the rebelliousness of youth, "The Devil and Webster" has an unfinished feel about it, as if some important matters were never adequately addressed.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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