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Crossing Washington Square Celebrates Literate Popular Women’s Fiction

March 4, 2010

Crossing Washington Square by Joanne Rendell
published by NAL Trade September 1, 2009

Rachel is a professor of literature. Unlike most of her high-brow colleagues, she is as excited about Bridget Jones’ Diary as she is about the works of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, and she relishes Harlequin romances. She grew up in a small town in Virginia and earned her PhD in  from the University of North Carolina. She’d always dreamed of living in New York City. When she won a tenure track position at the prestigious Manhattan University, she got the chance to pursue her dream.

However her first semester in the new teaching job has been a disappointment. Her students are bored and apathetic, and with the exception of Peter, the awkward, slightly eccentric department chair, her new colleagues haven’t warmed up to her. And Diana, a serious Sylvia Plath scholar who disdains popular women’s fiction, seems to actively dislike her.

Diana and Rachel debate fiercely about popular women’s fiction, including romance novels, which have been an important part of Rachel’s research. Diana avers that these fluffy novels are not really literature and have no place in academic research or teaching. Rachel believes “chick lit” and romance novels offer savvy heroines and smart writing. And while they are not literature, they grapple with many of the same themes as brilliant female authors like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. Furthermore, she wants to use popular novels alongside classics to show students the differences between literature and good non-literary fiction. After all, one of the questions literature students need to explore is why some books are classics.

Rachel finds herself intensely attracted to Carson, a handsome, sports-car driving visiting scholar from Harvard, and her life gets even more complicated. It happens that Carson also has a connection to Diana. And when Rachel and Diana end up chaperoning a Literary London trip, neither one is looking forward to being forced into the other’s company for several weeks.

Crossing Washington Square is loosely styled after Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and is rich with literary allusions. However it is not literary fiction. It is proudly and defiantly “chick lit,” written to appeal to educated women, and it is a gloriously fun read. The characters are somewhat stereotypical, including the roguish, sexy Carson and Peter, the slightly nerdy absent-minded professor. However, they did come to life in the story, and I enjoyed the romantic twists as well as the scholarly discussions of whether popular fiction merits academic study. Getting to tag along vicariously on the “Literary London” trip was icing on the cake.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy light fiction with smart female heroines, and I agree with Staci that Crossing Washington Square would make a fun movie. I am picturing Tina Fey as Diana — what do you think?

Question for Readers: Do you prefer literary fiction or popular fiction? Do you think popular novels are enriching for readers, or are they just mental junk food? Why?

Read More Reviews: Life in the Thumb; Devourer of Books; Take Me Away

Rating:

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 10, 2010 4:30 pm

    I’ve been meaning to read this, in part because I see myself in the main character. I believe in the value of all books; although I don’t like it when teachers use popular fiction to the exclusion of literary fiction.

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