My nine year old daughter spotted You Deserve Nothing on my bedside table and was immediately incensed by the title. “Who deserves nothing?” she demanded. “Why do they deserve nothing? That’s SO mean! Everyone deserves something.” While I thoroughly enjoyed Alexander Maksik’s debut novel, I must admit that as I read the book I pondered over the title too. Who was the ‘you’ at its centre? Will Silver, charismatic and revered English teacher at the ISF (International School of France) in Paris? Marie, the 16 year old student with whom he has an affair? Or Gilad, a loner who falls under Will’s spell and begins to find his way in life, only to suddenly realise that his beloved mentor is as human as everybody else?
You Deserve Nothing is narrated interchangeably by these three characters, who are alike in their solitude. All adrift in some way, it is possible that each feels they are the you of the title. Will has fled America and his marriage following the sudden, “instant” death of both his parents; Gilad is battling dislocation and domestic demons, the competing impulses to be a good son and to stand up to his bullying father; Marie, who spends her weekends drinking and sleeping where and with whom she likes, is suffering from neglect masquerading as parental permissiveness. All three are lonely and hurting. Will attempts to fill this void with literature and philosophy. “We are smart people sitting in a room talking about beautiful things,” he tells his senior class, of which Gilad is a member. “You know what I’ll say to you about choice, about your lives, about time… what you must not forget are the questions these writers compelled you to ask yourselves- questions of courage, of passion and belief.” Acknowledging that “teaching is also performance”, Will is an amalgam of the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society and the magnetic classics professor Julian Morrow from Donna Tartt’s bestseller, The Secret History. He introduces his students to Camus, to Thoreau, Sartre and Faulkner; he insists that their thoughts matter, that the reader is as important as the author. “Dude,” one declares, “you changed my life”. Will, as Marie describes him, is not only smart, he is also elegant- which only makes his downfall all the messier.
The blurb accompanying my copy of You Deserve Nothing trumpets it as having been hand-picked by acclaimed author Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) to launch her new boutique publishing imprint, Tonga Books. It’s not difficult to see why it was chosen. For a start, there is the fourth character of the novel, the city where it is set. Paris is beautiful but fragmenting, the rustling plane trees and the sound of a guitar coming up off the Seine contrasting with the racial tension of Sarkozy’s France, the protests, homelessness and vandalism. This dichotomy is repeated in the central questions of the novel. Though the bare plot line- student seduces teacher/teacher agonises but sleeps with student- is somewhat hackneyed, Maksik’s version is fresh and fluid, confronting in all the right ways, thought-provoking without being moralistic. Is the only thing we should expect from anyone disappointment, as Gilda ponders? Is Will a fake, as Marie’s friend Ariel calls him, because he slips and breaks an externally-imposed rule, or all the more real for following his own desires? Is it right to seek solace in another, or should one’s self be enough?
In the end, it was these questions that finally helped me understand the title of the book. You deserve or are granted nothing- as Will explains to his students, you make your own choices and then you live with them. None of these are pre-ordained, but none are meaningless either. We are all Hamlet, facing the dilemma of to be or not to be, to do or not to do, day after day, and in the end these decisions add up to a life. You Deserve Nothing is a quiet book, but an immensely thoughtful one.
Thank you to our guest reviewer, Kylie Ladd.
(You can visit Booktopia’s Kylie Ladd Author Page – here)
(Is your book club a bit… well… dull? It sounds like You Deserve Nothing is the perfect book to ensure a lively – and possibly heated – discussion at your next book club meet.You can order copies here)
The Booktopia Book Guru recommends…
Last Summer by Kylie Ladd
I have read a proof copy of this wonderful book. I read it quickly. I really wanted to know what happened next. How these people would cope. When I wasn’t reading it – when I was at work – I kept thinking I should text the characters to see how they were doing… They had become such a part of my life. It was a wonderful feeling. A great thing for a novel to achieve. This is a warm, wise, entertaining and somewhat life-changing book. Full review here…
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