The best-selling author of Admission returns with another college campus novel. Naomi Roth is appointed the first female president of Webster College (a fictitious school, but think NESCAC). Until her appointment, Naomi was a Webster professor; she is Jewish, a feminist, a once upon a time protester, and a single mother. Her only daughter attends Webster. One of Naomi’s first challenges at the college that has moved away from its old money male administrated image is the gathering group of students protesting in the center of campus at what is known as “The Stump.” Students (including Naomi’s daughter) form a tent city, (a la Occupy Wall Street) and while many are going to class and continuing their studies, the protest grows teeth. Naomi, ever the educator, believes in discourse and sees this as a teachable moment, so she provides for portable bathrooms and heating stations. She invites the students to discuss their grievances, but they refuse, much to Naomi’s puzzlement and ultimate frustration. She learns the protest stems from a favorite African-American professor not earning tenure. Issues surrounding tenure are confidential, so Naomi cannot share the reasons behind the denial. The leader of the protesters emerges as Palestinian student Omar Khayal and his profile adds another element to the growing tensions between students and administrators.
While somewhat satirical, The Devil and Webster brings up some great issues about education, free speech, confidentiality, parenting, dissenting and personal bias. She presents these issues without bias–this is a novel about the process of standing up for what you believe in, or not, using the setting of a college campus. The novel is not about advancing an agenda, so at least for this reader, no hot buttons were pushed, but my curiosity and fascination were engaged. Hanff Korelitz plays with the reader through scenarios and characters who, when we delve deeper, are game changers. The whole picture is not what I expected but was very interesting to sort out. A truly topical great read!