Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
This novel certainly has one of the most attractive covers I’ve seen in a while – it rather gave me the urge to start colouring it in, but I restrained myself! (Interestingly, between the proof and the finished article, I can see that quite a few of the letters have been moved around, flipped or resized slightly, to better accommodate that ‘best-seller’ flash I’d wager.)
Dear Committee Members is, obviously, an epistolary novel – but no ordinary story told in letters. All the letters, plus just a couple of abortive emails, are from one man, and all of them take one particular form – the letter of recommendation, or reference as we’d call it in the UK.
The writer of all of these missives is a middle-aged English professor of creative writing and literature in a small Midwestern American college. Jason Fitger has published several novels, one of which was momentarily a best-seller, but was autobiographically rather close to home, losing him success in the romance stakes.
The English department is under the financial squeeze – funds are being diverted into the most successful subjects. Every day, Fitger has to see the Economics department being upgraded while his building crumbles and tenured staff retiring get replaced by contractors if they’re lucky.
In amongst all of this, Fitger is bombarded by requests from his students, sometimes former ones from several years previously to provide LoRs to get them new jobs, new courses, new grants. He dutifully complies but in his own way, as in this LoR to support a former student applying to become a nursery nurse:
I apologize for the delay in sending this recommendation. For more than two decades I have maintained an orderly record-keeping system regarding each and every one of my students, but I apparently misfiled the information on Shayla Newcome and had to get out the dowsing rod to find her. In response to your query: Ms Newcome was my student six years ago. Having located the appropriate slim green record book in the lower left drawer of my desk, I note that she received a B in my Intermediate Fiction Writing class, having completed, if I am deciphering my own handwritten notes correctly, a short story intended to be a fictionalization of the pope’s childhood. Whether this indicates that Ms. Newcome is or is not to be entrusted with the precious lives of small children, I have no idea. At least she did not – as many of my undergraduates seem to enjoy doing – submit a vivid and celebratory depiction of murder and mayhem, complete with flesh-eating robots, werewolves, resurrections from the crypt, or some combination of the above. …
You can see what he’s up against! The above was early in the book, and the letters get more and more ‘individual’ and impassioned as it goes on. The LoRs are not just for students though; Fitger has to vote on a new Department Head, recommend colleagues for new positions, membership of new committees etc. And then there is Darren Browles, Fitger’s star pupil who is writing a novel that he is sure can get published, if only Fitger can secure him enough grants to get it finished.
The only problem is that most of the sources of grants are friends of his exes. It’s the letters to his erstwhile colleagues that gradually tease out the details of his own life and career, which is funny and a little heart-breaking at the same time. Despite Fitger being very annoying, in his candour he reveals himself and you do feel sympathy.
Having chosen to stick to a one-sided correspondence and then limiting it further by picking a singular missive type, you may wonder whether Schumacher is able to sustain the conceit. At only 180 pages (in the proof with lots of white space), she manages this without getting unnecessarily repetitive and the gradual reveal of Fitger’s situation is neatly managed. I rather enjoyed this chucklesome novel of letters. (8/10)
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Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Pub Oct 2014 by The Friday Project.