An Expensive Education

( 6 )

Overview

"At seventeen, from an insider's perspective, Nick McDonell wrote Twelve, the international best seller about privilege and excess on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which The New York Times called "as fast as speed, as relentless as acid." At twenty-five, he has written another novel from the inside." "An Expensive Education takes off at the troubled intersection of academia and realpolitik. A story of corruption and love, betrayal and sudden death, it shifts from the elite finals clubs of Harvard College and the manicured lawns of Harvard ...

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Overview

"At seventeen, from an insider's perspective, Nick McDonell wrote Twelve, the international best seller about privilege and excess on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which The New York Times called "as fast as speed, as relentless as acid." At twenty-five, he has written another novel from the inside." "An Expensive Education takes off at the troubled intersection of academia and realpolitik. A story of corruption and love, betrayal and sudden death, it shifts from the elite finals clubs of Harvard College and the manicured lawns of Harvard Yard to Somalia's dusty tracks and East Africa's high-end hotels." "Mike Teak has a classic Harvard profile. But only on the surface. He's a twenty-five-year-old scholar/athlete from an upper-class family who was recruited by his godfather to work for a U. S. intelligence agency. On a covert mission in a Somali village, he delivers cash and cell phones to Hatashil, a legendary orphan warrior turned rebel leader. It's a routine assignment until, minutes after they meet, the village is decimated by a missile attack, and although Mike escapes, his life is changed forever." "Echoing across continents, the assault disrupts Professor Susan Lowell's orderly existence. Beautiful, happily married, and the mother of two, she has just won a Pulitzer Prize for her book celebrating Hatashil." "Also shaken is Lowell's student, David Ayan, who was born in the targeted village a world away from Harvard's most exclusive final club, The Porcellian, which is courting him; and Jane, the smart, risk-taking daughter of a wealthy East Coast family who's sleeping with him." David Ayan struggles with his identity and Susan Lowell struggles against rumors about herrelationship with Hatashil, who has been accused of ordering the village massacre. But it is Mike Teak who faces a deadly challenge - because when he discovers a horrific conspiracy he immediately realizes that he has become expendable, with nowhere to run and no one to trust. Until the very last minute.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
An Expensive Education, about a young intelligence agent from Harvard, is nothing groundbreaking—for McDonell or the spy-novel genre—but it's smart and sexy and could be the beginning of a franchise more lucrative than literary fiction…blends a terse story of international intrigue with a biting satire of Harvard, from which McDonell graduated in 2007. As he's shown in his previous novels, he can be a ruthless chronicler of America's aristocratic culture.
—The Washington Post
Blake Wilson
Half campus novel, half geopolitical thriller, An Expensive Education proceeds…for 300 almost unerringly entertaining pages. McDonell skips from Washington to Nairobi as easily as he crosses the river between Cambridge and Boston, usually by means of short chapters and skillful cuts, but sometimes joining his characters in the comfortable business-class cabins of their transcontinental flights. Which is also to say, for all the fine reportorial detail about African dialects and the best way to negotiate with bandit militias, McDonell's true subjects are the status markers and status obsessions of his beautiful young cast.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

McDonell's third novel, a story of the messy consequences attendant upon a rogue American operation conducted against a Somalian freedom fighter, introduces a spy who could have easily walked off the pages of le Carré's better works. An American agent and recent Harvard graduate, Michael Teak has been assigned to deliver money to a band of east African freedom fighters led by local hero Hatashil. But while they're meeting, the village is decimated by a missile strike. Immediately, a mysterious story hits the wire, claiming Hatashil's men massacred the villagers. The news coincides with the Pulitzer Prize being awarded to a Harvard professor, Susan Lowell, whose book celebrates Hatashil. As Teak tries to come to terms with his own apparent expendability, Lowell fights vilification when a video that purportedly shows her pledging to kill for Hatashil surfaces. Meanwhile, an old Agency hand, Alan Green-Harvard alum and godfather to Teak-ties the stories together with his nefarious black world maneuverings. Teak is the most attractive fictional spy in quite some time, and even if the Harvard subplots feel too self-indulgent and insidery, one hopes this isn't Teak's only appearance. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
McDonell's dark, relentlessly readable latest (The Third Brother, 2005, etc.) swings back and forth between Harvard and Africa, and in both cases the education is indeed expensive. At Harvard, brainy, beautiful professor Susan Lowell prepares to attend the party celebrating her just-earned Pulitzer. Meticulously researched, her book centers on an East African freedom fighter named Hatashil, an authentic folk hero, in Susan's enthusiastic rendering. But hold everything. Reports have begun circulating of a brutal, bloody atrocity that has wiped out every man, woman and child in a small African village near the Kenya-Somalia border. Informed sources are labeling it "Hatashil's Massacre." Suddenly General Hatashil is looking downright genocidal, and is that egg besmirching Susan's lovely face? Once noticeably in Hatashil's corner, the U.S. government is backpedaling furiously to get out of it, leaving Susan noticeably alone. Criticism mounts, along with ugly talk about an undeserved prize that perhaps ought to be rescinded. The Crimson attacks her; students want to drop her courses. Cut to Michael Teak, a young Harvard graduate currently in the employ of U.S. intelligence. A linguist and athlete, Michael is also outstandingly courageous and lethally resourceful-a thinking man's Rambo, as it were. In addition, he's the only living witness to what actually happened in that ill-fated African village. But will he do the right thing? Will Susan? The 20-something author keeps his smart, ambitious, self-absorbed characters at arm's-length, doling out understanding and compassion to them while withholding real affection. A novel for the head more than the heart, but so very intelligent that for acertain kind of reader it will be catnip. East Coast tour including Boston and New York City. Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit
The Barnes & Noble Review
Nick McDonell has a personal, reportorial relationship with the settings in his novels: Twelve, his 2002 debut, is a scathing, unsentimental examination of privileged kids on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where McDonell was raised; The Third Brother (2005) focuses on a Harvard student sent on a magazine assignment to Bangkok, a milieu McDonell (as a Harvard student who'd once spent a summer in Bangkok) is more than qualified to describe; and An Expensive Education is a thriller set in the contrasting (yet overlapping) worlds of his alma mater, Harvard, and northeast Africa, where the 25-year-old McDonell has spent considerable time as a freelance journalist for Harper's and Time magazine, respectively. This intimate knowledge creates an air of realistic authority, even if the fictional characters dotting these landscapes sometimes seem too fantastical.

Michael Teak, the most redeeming character in An Expensive Education, is a Harvard graduate now working for the CIA in Africa. He's a linguistics expert who's one part James Bond and one part Jane Goodall. "His passion was reserved for zoology...but that wasn't important enough work he decided." With the help of his godfather, a CIA officer who also went to Harvard and was also a member of the fabled Porcellian finals club, Teak takes his impressive cache of skills and joins the intelligence agency. He's been working the Kenya-Somalia border for a year when he's directed to pay a well-known freedom fighter, Hatashil, $25,000 and give him a cell phone so the agency can remain in touch.

"Under the date palm tree three men sat on a thick but worn rug, sipping from small bowls of fermented camel milk. Two in full camouflage, one, whom Teak immediately picked for Hatashil, in a white djellaba...He carried a walking stick topped with some kind of skull, Teak couldn't tell what species."

The meeting is brief, and once Hatashil flips open the cell phone, "High above them, in one of the random afternoon cumulus formations, an alarm went off and a pilot adjusted his course."

A bomb is dropped and the narrative is launched, guided by the questions "Who was responsible for the bombing? Was it the CIA? And was Teak, their man on the ground, considered expendable? Or was Hatashil in fact responsible? And what exactly are the motives behind his work? Is he a freedom fighter or a murderer of innocents?"

Susan Lowell, a Harvard professor with a Boston Brahmin name, staked her reputation on the former. She's recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her book about Hatashil, but her work might soon be discredited if he's outed as a ruthless opportunist. We're asked to care, but that's tough to do when Lowell's all-encompassing interest in Africa is never explained; her motives are self-serving at best and murky at worst, a plague that afflicts most of the characters in this novel.

An Expensive Education is far from boring, shifting quickly between the intriguing, contrasting worlds of privileged, cloistered Harvard and war-torn Somalia. But the exacting, believable details expended on the Porcellian Club or on the climate and politics endemic to the Horn of Africa are (with the exception of Teak) notably absent from the lives of the central characters tossed into these respective milieus: Lowell, a 36-year-old with a husband and two kids who inexplicably devotes her life to African politics; a Somalian native named David Ayan, who comes to Harvard as a scholarship student and wants to make the right connections (the Porcellian Club; studying with Lowell) and learns that the bombing involving Teak and Hatashil has struck his home village; and David's white girlfriend, Jane, a product of prep schools and Beacon Hill who writes for theHarvard Crimson and is shallow and paternalistic.

When Jane, riding in first class on a return flight from Africa (where Harvard students with good families and good connections can spend a working vacation investigating Somalian freedom fighters) reflects on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's clear that McDonell is satirizing the segment of his alma mater that's self-important and tied in, who take the superiority of their social class for granted.

[T]hat day on the plane, flying to John F. Kennedy from Jomo Kenyatta by way of London's Heathrow, she became extremely conscious of the 9/11 attacks in a new way. She drank more red wine than usual and she thought about sudden explosions, a rushing descent to earth that would seem to go on forever. The fear gave way to anger as she looked at her father gently snoring across the aisle. He worked in a finance tower, and now many of the people she knew at Harvard were to begin their own careers in finance, too. They all could have been killed.

She had known this before, but now she was furious. She suddenly understood vengeance. Like wanting to chew on something, snap it between her teeth. For the first time she wanted theatrics. How dare they? These cowardly Muslims who would murder her father, murder final clubs boys...murder all her friends who would be sitting at computers in downtown skyscrapers in the coming years? She wanted these Muslims punished, she wanted them executed.

"More wine?" asked the stewardess.

In Teak's character, McDonell is making an earnest examination of identity, loyalty, and world politics. But with Jane and others, he's often using the plot as a convenient send-up of Harvard pretensions. And when you satirize your class, background and alma mater (as McDonell has now done to varying degrees in all three of his novels), you run the risk of writing a book filled with unsympathetic characters. That's what he's done here, with the possible exception of Teak.

When McDonell, then just 17, published Twelve, his public identity became that of a literary wunderkind, a brash new talent whose publishing connections (his father is Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell) unavoidably colored people's perceptions of his first book. The text -- staccato sentences building to stunted, underdeveloped chapters -- reinforced the book's dark, disturbing theme of teenage disconnection. While the book had its flaws, most notably fruitless tangents and an over-the-top, cinematic conclusion, McDonell had produced a remarkable debut, an international bestseller that Joan Didion called "an astonishing rush of a first novel, all heat and ice and inexorable narrative drive...A pleasure to read, a horror to contemplate, a real achievement."

But the spare, understated style appropriate to Twelve didn't work as well in the wider world of The Third Brother (set largely in Bangkok before shifting abruptly to 9/11 New York City) and now looks somewhat threadbare when stretched across an international thriller involving Harvard, Africa, and espionage. While the narrative clips along at an entertaining pace, there are still needless asides, as when we bounce into the minds of throwaway characters, e.g., "(Jane) looked at her phone as the Gikuyu waiter brought her latte. The waiter paused for a moment, putting down the drink. The girl had a glow. Maybe she was pregnant. The waiter was glad he had read some Psalms that morning. He had a lot of tables just then but he wanted to sneak out to top up his cell phone at the supermarket across the street. He had to call his little brother, who was about to become a father for the first time."

That's the first and last time we encounter this waiter, and in a 294-page novel replete with white space and one-page chapters, these random jaunts really shouldn't make the cut.

An Expensive Education ultimately belongs to Michael Teak, who emerges as the one character whom McDonell seems to love and whom he spends considerable time developing. If Teak here is stuck in the first installment of a Tom Clancy-like series, well, we can at least look forward to his return (in fuller bloom) in a later novel by McDonell. --Cameron Martin

Cameron Martin is a columnist with CBS Sports, Comcast SportsNet New England, and Hearst newspapers. From 1996 to 2007, he was a columnist and feature writer for the Greenwich Time and Stamford Advocate newspapers in Connecticut. Email: cdavidmartin@yahoo.com

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802144812
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/20/2010
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,431,684
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

NICK MCDONELL was born in 1984 in New York City. A graduate of Harvard University, he is the author of two previous novels, Twelve and The Third Brother.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 15, 2011

    Good Luck With This One

    Well, I did it...It was not easy, but I finished it. I really think McDonell had a story to tell, but it never came across. It definitely reminded me of someone who is tongue-tied, has so much to say/tell, but never quite gets it all out. The book was very cliche and seems to be written by someone who has never gotten their hands dirty....Good Luck if you pick this one up! Rating it 2 stars due to the plot.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 7, 2011

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