My Rating: 4 stars
Many thanks to W. W. Norton & Company and NetGalley for the ARC! This book is being released today, January 4 2022!
The Latinist is set at the fictional Westfaling College in Oxford and focuses on Tessa, a gradate student about to get her doctorate, and Chris, the head of classics who sabotages her career chances with a bad letter of recommendation. Since I’m in PhD program myself, I love seeing authors’ takes on academia. For the most part, Prins’ depiction feels fairly realistic. He deals with some issues you can find at most universities, mainly sexism and professors mistreating graduate students. Tessa is a relatable, though not exactly likeable, main character; I saw a lot of myself in her, both good and bad, and I imagine many graduate students and academics will too. There are a few academic-related things right at the end that I found a little hard to believe. But overall the book gives a successful snapshot of academia.
This is a character-driven piece of literary fiction, so it’s a little slow moving and we spend a lot of time in the characters’ heads. We follow both Tessa and Chris. As I said, Tessa is not necessarily likable, but I did find myself rooting for her considering the situation. Chris is deplorable, and some readers may find it off-putting to spend so much time with him. Prins attempts to make him a little sympathetic with his divorce and the situation with his dying mother, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a creep who is obsessed with his student, hacks her email, and sabotages her job search. None of this is spoilers, by the way; we learn all this in the first chapter.
The book is heavy on Latin and classical references, as might be expected. It worked for me even though I’m not extremely knowledgeable in those subjects, so I don’t think you need to be particularly familiar with it to enjoy the book. Prins provides in-text translations for all the Latin he includes. The poet Tessa studies, Marius, is completely fictional, so there’s no background knowledge needed there. The main thing you need to know is the story of Daphne and Apollo since Chris and Tessa’s relationship is based around it. But even that is explained fairly well in the text.
I had mixed feelings on the ending. I didn’t take issue with what actually happens in the ending; that felt entirely appropriate for the story. However, I wished it had occurred a bit earlier in the narrative, at maybe the 75% point instead of the 90% point. I’m not going to say much to avoid spoilers, but I wanted to see the direct aftermath of the climax rather than receiving a summary several months later. I’ve noticed this trend lately of a shocking, major event happening at the 90% point in books and then not really being dealt with, and I kind of hate it. This is the third book I’ve encountered recently that did this.
Overall, The Latinist is a well-written and interesting look at a toxic relationship between a graduate student and her professor. While I had a slight issue with the ending, I consider it worth the read!