Monday, October 5, 2009

Nick McDonnell's An Expensive Education (2009)

I read An Expensive Education a couple of weeks ago during our trip to New England.

This book was fine. The plot was interesting enough to keep me (relatively) curious as to how things would play out. However, it did not live up to my expectations after Sam Tanenhaus's enthusiastic endorsement on the NYT Book Review podcast.

Nick McDonnell is a Harvard grad who published his first book -- Twelve -- at age seventeen. He seemed a likable guy when interviewed by Tanenhaus, as he described living in Africa for an extended time in order to research An Expensive Education. And, I was fascinated by the idea of a seventeen year old being able to write an entire novel -- the thought of a novel seems so daunting, and to produce a good one as a teenager seems quite the feat. I assumed, in light of McDonnell's description of living in Africa, he might have some good insights into African culture and politics and/or the complexity of American intervention (whether humanitarian or military).

His writing style, though, struck me as "political thriller boilerplate." The main character, a 25-year old spy named Teak, witnesses a village massacre carried out by the American military. Rather than explore the moral ambiguity of American overseas involvement, the story becomes a fairly standard indictment of corrupt American intelligence efforts (in this case, motivated by the desire to maintain good ties with the Saudis).

I've just googled for reviews of the book -- Entertainment Weekly, like the NYT, raves, but Bret McCabe at the Baltimore City Paper (here) puts his finger on the novel's shortcomings:
John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Littell have no need to worry that Nick McDonell has reinvented the spy novel for the post-post-Cold War, text-messaging generation ... while [An Expensive Education] is effortlessly readable and entertainingly plotted, it lacks the steely intelligence and moral ambiguity that defines the best of the genre.

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