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“The Writing Class” (book review)

August 14, 2008

I have a book review up at Women’s Voices For Change!

Many, many thanks to Chris Lombardi for putting me in touch with the editor.

Book Review: The Writing Class Will Please Adrenaline Junkies

By Elizabeth Willse

The Writing Class
By Jincy Willett
Thomas Dunne Books
June 2008 326 pp

Setting a whodunit in the middle of an adult education writing class makes for an blend of suspense and quirky comedy. Jincy Willett’s “The Writing Class” features a misanthropic instructor — Amy Gallup, a middle-aged novelist who spends the first class writing notes in the margins of her class list and shooting barbs at her students – and a catalogue of misfit aspiring writers: the pompous doctor writing a medical thriller, the prim retired schoolteacher, the outspoken woman who’s taken dozens of Amy’s classes.

Sinister pranks set the class on edge. Spooky anonymous phone calls, malicious parodies of students’ work, obscene drawings: each week something strange disrupts the class. Novice writers, some of whom can barely stand each other, have to think more creatively than they do in their stories. They must stay one step ahead of the malevolent writing class “Sniper,” as the pranks escalate into murder.
The story begins with handwritten pages from an unnamed student’s notebook, describing Amy with sarcasm and the rest of the students with open scorn. Amy’s notes on her class list reveal how jaded she feels. The reader will groan at terrible student writing, and shiver at The Sniper’s escalating insanity. And there’s Amy’s website – offering whimsy as a counterpoint to the novel’s suspense.
At times, Willett’s sense of dark comedy shifts too steeply toward parody. Some descriptions of Amy’s lonely interior life are so heavy-handed that they stall the story. But the glimpses of Amy’s past are rich enough to hint that Willett has a whole separate story to tell. Amy’s early success, and subsequent failures as a novelist are part of this novel’s story arc; but there’s enough potential in her two marriages and subsequent solitude to fuel a separate novel. As it is, the tantalizing fragments only make Amy’s emergence seem rushed, shoehorned in against the mystery plot.
To be fair, Willett has a lot to cover in this novel. There’s a mystery to unpack and set against a kooky class of characters, and the morose, reclusive Amy. Willett’s novice writers make charmingly inept detectives. The Sniper’s bitter menace cranks the mystery to an urgent pitch. This oddball comic mystery will please whimsy seekers and adrenaline junkies alike.

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