Book Simple: Magic for Grown-Ups
a blogumn by Amy Brown
In my experience, there is no one in high school who isn’t a wad of wretchedness. My college roommate tells a story about a classmate in her chemistry class whose pencil fell off her desk and who subsequently burst into tears. So when I met Quentin in The Magicians, I couldn’t help but admire how perfectly author Lev Grossman captured teenage depression.
Quentin Coldwater is a dejected high school student in Brooklyn. “It seemed to Quentin like the world was offering up special little tableaux of misery just for him: crows perched on power lines, stepped-in dog shit, windblown trash, the corpses of innumerable wet oak leaves being desecrated in innumerable ways by innumerable vehicles and pedestrians.” He escapes from the bleakness of real life into the magical world of Fillory, described in a set of books by the C.S. Lewis-like author Christopher Plover.
Quentin, “trapped in his own private individual winter,” stumbles through a portal into the spring-warm glens of Brakebills College, where his seat at the entrance exam is waiting. Magic, the magic Quentin has dreamed about for so long, is real.
I haven’t fallen so completely in love with a book since I read the first Harry Potter on a sleeper train from Paris during my junior year abroad. Instead of my expensive coffin-sized berth, I could have just sat up in coach because I didn’t sleep all night, just read and read, immersed in the magical world. Reading The Magicians I had the same feeling of glorious discovery.
Students at Brakebills learn to transform themselves and spend afternoons “as polar bears, wandering clumsily in a herd over the packed snow, swatting harmlessly at each other with giant yellow paws.” They command fireflies and catch flying books at the library.
Beautiful though these moments are, this is a story for adults: “Magic, Quentin discovered, wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive.” The tests required of the students are more arduous than my graduate school comprehensive exams. Some magic is dark and uncontrollable. And worst of all, magicians remain people, who feel pain at thwarted desires and can exact venomous revenge. Brakebills is still college all right – full of sex and alcohol and the perpetual question of who to be.
After graduation, Quentin and his classmates are thrust out into the real world with magic that makes anything possible, but without any purpose. “‘I know you think it’s going to be all quests and dragons and fighting evil and whatever, like in Fillory,’” insists Quentin’s girlfriend, “‘But it’s not. You don’t see it yet. There’s nothing out there.’” The matriculated magicians become listless, supported by the equivalent of a giant trust fund.
The best part of the novel for me was that the story keeps going, through Quentin’s college years, to his post-college drought and then, well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Read this if you read nothing else this year – it’s miraculous.