Reading Group Choices “Editors’ Pick” selection
The Millions “Most Anticipated Books” selection
Foreword Reviews “Book of the Day” selection
“[A] telling debut novel of money, power, and friendship. It exposes the hypocrisy of the byzantine inner workings of the reward system of cutthroat academic politics, the fraudulent patina of family-run foundations, and the bitter consequences of toxic relationships.” —World Literature Today
“Benefit is a fascinating twist on the typical campus novel. While most such novels acknowledge the presence of rigorous hierarchies in academia, Phillips adds a sophisticated and intensely sharp critique of how capitalism has weaponized the system of meritocracy.” —On the Seawall
“Offers a way to navigate deprivation and privilege in the modern world. . . . Benefit is an exercise of the mind, a delight for the senses, and a cleansing of the intellect.” —Antithesis
“An important satire looking at the world of foundations and fellowships in academia.” —Book Riot
“[An] intricately structured novel that will appeal to readers interested in peering through the window of this rarified world.” —Portland Book Review
“Benefit is a fascinating novel—both a portrait of an industrial empire and revelatory about the elitist greed that often shadows philanthropy. It is also an unnerving glimpse into the impoverishment of academia, as scholars compete for part-time work and paltry salaries.” —Foreword Reviews
“Phillips’s assured debut novel blends a complex journey of personal realizations with insights into the dark side of ambition and power.” —Booklist
“A smart, thoughtful read.” —Library Journal
“Incisive. . . . Pulls back the veil on university hierarchies and social privilege.” —Publishers Weekly
“Highlight[s] the toxicity and ethical gaps that underlie much of modern academia and philanthropy . . . with striking social commentary.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A smart, razor-sharp exploration of the precarious island of academic life and the cold unforgiving waters that surround it.” —Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation and Weather
“A compelling novel about friendship, education, and purpose, all illustrated through a cast of flawlessly realized characters.” —Susan Perabo, author of Why They Run the Way They Do and The Fall of Lisa Bellow
“Siobhan Phillips’s portrait of a stalled would-be academic is thrillingly intimate and ambitious in its scope, evoking at turns Rachel Cusk, Lynn Steger Strong’s Want, and Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind. Deadpan and dread-filled, shadowed by the specters of war and late capitalism, Benefit probes both the futility and necessity of intellectual work, all in the wry, wise voice of an uncommonly clear-eyed friend.” —Jessica Winter, author of Break in Case of Emergency and The Fourth Child
DEBUT A Rhodes Scholar with advanced degrees from Yale and the University of East Anglia, Phillips purveys an authoritative insider's perspective on academia and its social impact with the story of an at-loose-ends adjunct professor who attended Oxford on a Rhodes-like Weatherfield fellowship. Socially awkward and lacking a fancy pedigree, Laura felt out of place among her Weatherfield cohorts, who have gone on to success a decade later as she flounders, with both her job and her marriage out the window. A Weatherfield friend—but is she really a friend?—offers Laura work writing a history of the Weatherfield Foundation for its centennial, and Laura discovers ugly truths about the foundation's roots in the exploitative sugar industry even as she reconnects with other breezily assured Weatherfield fellows. Lacquered with details of Laura's struggles and her Weatherfield experiences, then and now, the narrative can initially feel slow. But Phillips is a smooth, steady storyteller, and the backstory connects directly to her portrait of academia as both reflecting and driving social inequities. VERDICT A smart, thoughtful read, occasionally needing patience; the socially engaged and younger readers facing the issues Phillips examines will especially enjoy.
A struggling American academic reluctantly reunites with members of her Oxford graduate-fellowship cohort.
Laura Graham’s life is not going well in the fall of 2011: She wasn’t rehired for her adjunct teaching position at a women’s college near Boston, hasn’t found a permanent tenure-track position, and is stalled on an essay she’s writing about Henry James. Strapped for money, she moves back home with her mother and takes a contract job writing the history of the Weatherfield Foundation, which sponsored the Oxford fellowship for “students of promise and ambition” she'd won 10 years earlier. Working on this essay, which will be used as part of a celebration of the foundation, takes Laura on two different journeys: First, she embarks on a historical excavation of the sugar business that created the fortune behind the prestigious fellowships, including its involvement in slavery, war, and exploitation; and second, she takes a number of trips around New England to meet up with the former members of her fellowship cohort, all much more successful than her, if also intolerably shallow. Author Phillips was a Rhodes scholar; her depictions of Laura’s research, social life, and failed job search highlight the toxicity and ethical gaps that underlie much of modern academia and philanthropy. The novel plays with structure and style, which slows the momentum of the narrative considerably at first. The second half of the novel, in which Laura begins to confront the expectations and falsity of the foundation’s work and her friends, is more absorbing in its forcefulness.
An uneven debut novel with striking social commentary.