As a young girl, Naomi is very close to her father and eager to fulfill his high ambitions for her. Possessed of a photographic memory, she is a loner and a misfit amongst other children, friendless and bullied at school. She spends most of her time with her father, visiting the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site over and over again. Her father's deep obsession with Rose Kennedy and her unrealized potential shapes Naomi's life. When her father collapses and has a heart attack in front of Naomi on one of their visits to the home, she vows to become a doctor to learn to fix things like her father's broken heart and the deep, clinical depression her mother suffers from throughout Naomi's life.
Into Naomi's life moves a young boy named Teddy, a neighbor, a Hasidic Jew, and the only child of a very strict mother and a father with a bad heart. Over the years, Naomi and Teddy become inseparable, tied to each other closer than actual siblings. They complete each other, despite Teddy's deeply disapproving mother. But when Teddy's father dies, he and his mother move away from Boston and Naomi is left adrift without the comfort of her friend. And when she receives increasingly strange letters from him, she is devastated to discover that she cannot save him, cannot reverse whatever has gone wrong for him. Life has given her the first of its irrefutable lessons. But she still intends to go to Wellesley and become a doctor as her father has planned for so long.
Arriving on campus at Wellesley, Naomi expects her life to change for the better now that she is surrounded by other high achievers like herself. And yet she finds herself even more isolated than she previously was, adrift and as friendless as she has been for most of her life. Her first year is an uncomfortable and lonely one and she looks towards the next three years as more of the same, time to be put in until she goes to medical school and starts her doctor training. But early her sophomore year, something happens that changes Naomi's life and her path. She sees a woman walk out onto the lake and slip through the ice. Helping to save Ruth, Naomi is introduced to the Shakespeare Society, fondly called Shakes, and ultimately to friends. She re-encounters Jun Oko, the Japanese economics student who bested her for the single freshman position on the tennis team the year before and the two of them, each with the weight of heavy expectations on their shoulders, become friends. It is through Jun that Naomi will finally learn that she cannot always save the others she most wants to save and that perhaps her life trajectory is not the one she and her father always imagined.
The writing here is very slow and deliberate, drawing out the quiet lessons of Naomi's life at each stage. Her mother's depression and absence from her life in fundamental ways beyond physical create Naomi's character as much as her father's academic expectations do. As a character shaped by these forces, Naomi is very believeable and realistic but she still comes across to the reader at a remove. She's the narrator but she maintains a distance and detachment that make it hard to sympathize with her. Her closest friendships, with Teddy and with Jun, are described but are perhaps too cerebrally discussed to feel as natural and believable as they should. The characters surrounding Naomi at Wellesley, especially those in Shakes with her, ostensibly the community with whom she is closest, are not particularly distinct from each other and play only tangential parts in the play of her life. Although well-written, the novel felt drawn out to me. Naomi came across as an old soul in the sense that she seemed weary and unlikely to be happy in life. And the ending seemed rather abrupt and an about face given her character to that point. I wanted to really love this but I, unlike almost everyone else, just didn't.
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