“[A] jewel of a debut . . . abundantly satisfying.”—Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Time, NPR, The Atlantic, Electric Lit, Thrillist, LitHub, Kirkus Reviews • A witty, intelligent novel of an American woman on the edge, by a brilliant new voice in fiction—“the glorious love child of Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
As an adjunct professor of English in New York City with no hope of finding a permanent position, Dorothy feels “like a janitor in the temple who continued to sweep because she had nowhere else to be but who had lost her belief in the essential sanctity of the enterprise.” No one but her boyfriend knows that she’s just had a miscarriage, not even her therapists—Dorothy has two of them. Nor can she bring herself to tell the other women in her life: her friends, her doctor, her mentor, her mother. The freedom not to be a mother is one of the victories of feminism. So why does she feel like a failure?
Piercingly intelligent and darkly funny, The Life of the Mind is a novel about endings: of youth, of professional aspiration, of possibility, of the illusion that our minds can ever free us from the tyranny of our bodies. And yet Dorothy’s mind is all she has to make sense of a world largely out of her control, one where disaster looms and is already here, where things happen but there is no plot. There is meaning, however, if Dorothy figures out where to look, and as the weeks pass and the bleeding subsides, she finds it in the most unlikely places, from a Las Vegas poolside to a living room karaoke session. In literature—as Dorothy well knows—stories end. But life, as they say, goes on.
Literary critic Smallwood debuts with the brilliant story of a young academic powering through her existential dread. Dorothy languishes in "adjunct hell" at a university in New York City, teaching up to four literature and writing courses per semester (including a course she designed titled "Writing Apocalypse"), while her affable boyfriend helps pay the bills from her two therapists. Each fall, she holds out an ever-dwindling hope to land one of the several jobs that open up in her field. She's just had a miscarriage, and as the weeks pass, she muses on the menstrual blood and tissue discharge that results from her at-home Cytotec treatment. Dorothy is an intensely cerebral creature. Her narration of interactions with others, whether exchanging text messages with a friend, giving money to a panhandler, or parrying with her peers, is filtered by literary analysis, often to hilarious effect ("This man is an albatross around my neck," she thinks, after the panhandler she'd dubbed the "Ancient Mariner" follows her to another subway car). As she confronts her emotions about losing the unplanned pregnancy and reconsiders her ideas about endings, both literary and corporeal, she begins to reconnect with herself. Dorothy's sharp, witty narration makes this book something special ("In the asymmetrical warfare of therapy, secrets were a guerrilla tactic," she decides, after putting off a session with her primary therapist). The result is like the glorious love child of Otessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney.
NY Times did a hard sell for an at-best mediocre work.