Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons is a dull book about dull people. It tells the story of a group of Oxford undergraduates who fall under the spell of the ‘mercurial’ Mark, have fun, drink too much champagne, leave university and find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the big wide world and the shocking events which pervade it. Or so says the blurb.
In fact, Mark himself never gives much evidence of his oft-discussed charm. He is fractious and pretentious, and his alleged charisma is only found in the allegations of it: Alderman seems to think that by repeatedly describing him as ‘charming’ she can get away with providing absolutely no basis for it. The group of students whom he invites to live with him in his huge, romantic house are equally falsely lauded.
James, the narrator, is a below-average middle-class physicist who is supposedly ‘beautiful’ but whose conversation and observations are so pedestrian as to render entire episodes in the novel obsolete. The best description of him comes from cruel Mark, who tells James ‘All you ever are is a reflection of other people… What are you really? Nothing. You’re all shadows and mirrors.’
The others in the group – highly intelligent Franny, boorish Simon, musical Jess, beautiful Emmanuella – are at best characterised by their interests rather than their personalities, and at worst not characterised at all.
All we really learn about Emmanuella, for example, is that she is rich and that she fancies tall blond men.
Wealth is the other problem in the book. In order to bring all the characters together, Alderman has to pretend that Mark is not a snob; yet this seems so unlikely as to be almost impossible. The main force for social hierarchy comes from Mark’s mother, who disapproves of the group because they are not Catholic.
But this does not ring true at all: with his millions of pounds, vast estates dotted around the world and giddyingly grand contacts, Mark is significantly posher than all the other characters, yet this does not come into play at all in any of the relationship dynamics except for one rather feeble effort by Alderman to suggest that James is in Mark’s debt.
Alderman gives the impression of being slightly in love with her characters: the golden hue which colours their past seems to be not their nostalgia but hers.
There are many dreary passages about staying up until dawn drinking, or giving New Year’s eve parties, but the most naughty thing that ever happens at these events is one episode of marijuana-induced tipsiness. Compared to Gossip Girl or Cruel Intentions, these parties are positively tame.
The Lessons is extremely derivative. It draws on Brideshead Revisited, The Secret History, and The Line of Beauty to create a novel which is a hotchpotch of the worst aspects of each.
The narrative is pacy, and there are some funny moments, but at every stage Alderman lets slip a detail which suspends our suspended disbelief and exposes a flaw in the basic plot. The novel, like its narrator, is composed merely of shadows and mirrors, always failing to materialise into anything resembling a believable, gripping story.