This is a short, enjoyable epistolary novel, composed entirely of letters of recommendation written by a curmudgeonly English professor. You might wonder how anyone could make a story out of that, but Schumacher manages, by dint of the professor’s complete lack of a filter about what belongs in professional letters (personal information and complaints about university bureaucracy appear frequently), and the fact that three frequent recipients of his LORs are also his exes. Nor are the letters limited to recommending students for educational programs or jobs (often wildly unrelated to their degrees) – letters recommending people for mental health treatment, or refusing for the umpteenth time to endorse an unbalanced colleague’s self-nomination to a position of authority, also count.
Occasionally the conceit strains credibility (“Whatever I can do to assist in your – or any other firm’s – hiring of Mr. Napp I will accomplish with resolution and zeal,” Jay Fitger writes of his department’s tech support, in a letter sure to preclude any job offer), but overall Schumacher strikes a good balance between writing believable letters and keeping them entertaining enough to hold readers’ interest. The book is often funny, and made me laugh out loud several times, but I’m on the fence about whether it should be shelved as humor: it’s also more serious and melancholy than I expected, particularly toward the end. Fitger emerges as a champion for his increasingly beleaguered and undervalued department, and for the concept of a liberal arts education, as opposed to a more strictly practical and lucrative route. “The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy – the insertion of oneself into the life of another,” he writes: a sentiment I fully agree with. Though I would not want to read any of Fitger’s novels, the better-received of which are apparently thinly veiled portrayals of his own love life.
Okay, so the book is a bit gimmicky, but it’s fun to read and has a strong voice, and the concept translates well onto the page. It’s worth the short amount of time you’ll take to read it.