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Dear Thursday: THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman [Book 14 of 2010]

Guys, by the time you read this, I’ll hopefully be on a plane reading. Of course, I’m looking forward to doing my research in Scotland and seeing my writing exchange partner IRL for the first time in almost two years. but there’s a little part of me that is always thrilled to take a plane trip alone simply b/c it means I’ll get to read a lot. Oh, the thrill of it! And I can’t wait to report back, til then, here are my thoughts on THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman.

Why I Decided To Read It: Amy from “Book Simple” has made me want to pick up a lot of books, but her review of this “Harry Potter for Adults” sent me straight to

What It’s About: Quentin, a very high-achiever, who is obsessed with a series of Narnia-like books set in the land of Fillory, finds out that there really is a college for magicians, which is called Brakebills. That’s a very simple synopsis, b/c I really don’t want to take a minute of discovery or enjoyment away from you.

What Makes It Different: Not as black-and-white as Narnia, not as epic as Lord of the Rings, not as childish as Harry Potter — THE MAGICIANS owe all of these works a huge debt, yet its angst and cynicism makes it quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

What I Loved: I always find that my favorites of the year sneak up on me about two-thirds of the way through my enjoyment of them. For example, last year, I thought I was simply enjoying the movie, AWAY WE GO, and then with 30 minutes to spare, I realized that I was actually watching the movie that I had enjoyed more than any other for all of 2009. Same goes for THE BRIEF LIFE OF OSCAR WAO back in 2008. We’re only four months into 2010, but two-thirds of the way through this novel, I was pretty sure that it was going to be my favorite book of the year.

But what exactly did you love about this book? you ask. Too much to give you a full answer in this small space, especially w/o the benefit of spoilers. But THE MAGICIANS made me fall in love with Smith College all over again. It also gave me back Narnia, my angsty 20s, and the thrill of overachievement. It made me both happy and sad, that I would never be smart or capable enough to get into Brakebills. It made me think hard about how much time and energy I would be willing to sacrifice to my craft. It made me feel A-OK with never having read LORD OF THE RINGS or the first six Harry Potter Books.

What I Didn’t Like: The writing is glorious, but curiously ridden with a ton of adverbs. Almost like Grossman read or heard the rule about adverbs and decided to use them out of stubbornness. Sometimes the adverbs worked. A lot of the time they did not. Seriously everybody, stay away from adverbs.

Zero racial diversity outside of the college years, but I found myself forgiving Grossman, b/c at least the girls and the gay got to come along for the ride, and I’m hoping one of the few non-white characters that was mentioned in the college years show up for the sequel.

I also didn’t want it to end, and have been a little bummed ever since I finished it, but I guess that’s more of a compliment than a complaint.

Writing Lessons Learned:

Structure in the Time of Life. If you’ve read a lot of my reviews, you’ve probably figured out that I am obsessed with structure. THE MAGICIANS structure is fascinating, because it starts slowly in high school, gets a little faster, but still creeps along in college, then all of the debauchery and adventure is crammed into the last half of the novel. At first I thought Grossman was being overly indulgent, but then I realized that he was pacing it against the rhythm of life, which makes it feel all that more real, despite its fantastical premise. Brilliant.

Put it all in. I have a short attention span. I never put it all in. But very little is skipped over in THE MAGICIANS. And what’s even crazier is that it all counts. There were a few bits in the college years, where I was like, “C’mon do we really need to hear about all of this?” I was surprised to find out toward the last third of the book that we really did. I can’t imagine anything being cut out now. It reminded me that a detail-oriented novel isn’t necessarily a terribly self-indulgent thing — as long as all of the details count.

Brechtian Stupidity. I hate when people in novels do stupid things that I wouldn’t do. It drives me absolutely crazy when I see this happening. And unfortunately a lot of authors use this device for the shock value or just to have things pop off in the most dramatic way possible. But in this novel, the main character is stupid in a way that I respect. Kind of like the Brechtian ideal that you want your audience to be able to say, “Yes, I would do that exact same thing if I were in that character’s situation,” I found myself thinking, “Yes, if I was Quentin, I would do or think that stupid thing.” What great writing.

To Whom Would I Recommend This Book: Smithies, Harry Potter Fans, Anyone Who Graduated From A “Good School,” Harry Potter Haters, People Who Love Narnia, Christians, Atheists, Magical Thinkers, Dream Chasers.

Click on the cover pic to buy the book!