You Deserve Nothing : A Review
I know I am far from the only one to have experienced this, but this really feels like a “this could only happen to me” sort of thing.
Let me explain.
I just finished reading a novel for the first in a shameful amount of time that no writer should admit to passing and it was everything you’d want in a read. It made me think. It made me feel. I started reading and quickly fell in. It was an indulgence I gave myself snuggled in bed with a thick, soft blanket and glass of wine and having just finished the book I lay back in bed, elated in contemplation, imagining the review I would write of it, deciding the best way of describing it all succinctly was to say that reading this book was like falling in and out of love. Ahhh…. so sweet, and sad, and painful, and good - beginning with idealism and ending in disillusionment, but ultimately, you come out better for it all.
I couldn’t wait to share the story with my reading friends, though admittedly, it wasn’t one I’d have passed off to just anyone. It’s not a book for the easily offended. It challenges ideas of right and wrong. I amused myself thinking it was “Mr. Naughty Holland’s Opus.” Told from three perspectives - a teacher and two students – it’s the classic story of a hero teacher, but twisted.
It’s a fallen hero teacher story.
Mr. Will Silver is the hip, charismatic English professor that is at once intimidating and inspiring, speaking with his students as though they were equals and teaching them much more than theory and terminology and names. He’s the sort of teacher that helps you grow as a person. Gilad is a student in his class that is new to the school and country (France), isolated from his peers and parents, and obsessed with Will right up to, but not quite to point of, something sexual. When he’s not in class with Will, he’s thinking about the time he will be and seeking to impress him in all things. Marie, the other student through which the story is told, meets Mr. Silver by chance over a summer break, beginning an affair which is obviously wrong, but to what degree? It’s not rape. She’s relentlessly perusing him, not the other way around and when they do finally end up together, he treats her well. She’s 17, not an adult, but not a child either.
If Will was a friend of mine, I would definitely advise against his decision to date her. I would tell him it was creepy and he should date someone of his own age and maturity. I’d point out how stupid it was. That he could go to jail. And you can bet that I would say it over and over until he finally broke things off. But I don’t think I would see him as evil. Just wrong.
As the Adam Langer wrote for The New York Times “A fair number of readers might actually find themselves rooting for this couple to remain together.”(Read his full review HERE. It’s brilliantly put synopsis of the book.) But in the end, it doesn’t really matter what stance you take. The whole point of the book is to blur lines and make us question our ideas of morality – a point which now feels pretty ironic.
I arrived on the job today fully intending to write a review recommending this book, but in researching and preparing to do so, I stumbled upon a piece of information that now has me questioning all the conclusions I had come to. Though Alexander Maksik’s debut novel You Deserve Nothing went best seller and received critical acclaim from some of the biggest voices in the literary world, those voices read and reviewed it as a novel, when, as it turns out, it’s actually a memoir.
Stumbling easily onto Elissa Strauss' Jezebel expose on the book, the best way to put things is to say I felt cheated.
This novel I had been so excited about is one I suddenly felt guilty for even enjoying and no longer felt right recommending.
Alexander Maksik (right) was in fact, a teacher at the American School of Paris and after speaking to school administrators, students, and even “Marie,” it became clear that not only was his telling similar to his experience there, it was nearly identical to reality. Mr. Maksik was actually fired from the school in 2006 after school administrators discovered he was sleeping with a 17 year old student there. And it gets worse.
“The real-life "Marie," whom I corresponded with via email, said that she is disgusted that he is getting literary kudos for re-telling her very real story. She said Maksik included a number of very personal things she told him in confidence in the book, and that she has worked for the past five years to move past the shame and guilt she felt as a result of the affair only to re-encounter it all again in a widely praised novel. Maksik never asked her for permission.”
So almost all the facts were true - except for the way these students, whose voices he used to tell the story, actually felt about the things that transpired in it.
Memories of the A Million Little Pieces scandal surface as I struggle deciding just how this new information does/should change the book and my experience with it. However, with A Million Little Pieces, the situation was reversed. A mainly fictional story was being presented as true, and to me that seems far easier to forgive.
When you know (or think) you’re reading a true story, you empathize more strongly with the subjects. In fiction, though you can certainly grow attached to the characters, I feel like to some extent, without us even realizing it, we place them and their actions in separate category, a category where some of the social norms and bias we can’t help but have is removed and we can look at and judge them in a new light, outside the context we are used to living with. A Million Little Pieces was a case of an author wanting readers to have the full impact of reality and to let them more powerfully connect with the characters – a lie none-the-less, but one that seems more innocent and victimless. You Deserve Nothing is a case of an author selfishly wanting to use his - and not only his, but this girl’s who feels she was abused – story without receiving the full impact of judgment he rightly deserves.
In the end, I must admit, whether I'm wrong or right for feeling this way, I am still glad to have read the book and to have read it as fiction. However, would I have read it knowing what I know now? Would I feel right recommending others read it, despite the hurt it has caused? I'm not sure.
I must agree with the conclusion Strauss says his former students came to “…if Maksik really wanted to write a book that was fearless and took on the subject of moral ambiguity, he should have written a memoir. But only after asking for permission first.”