Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Shakespeare Requirement" by Julie Schumacher

Jason Fitger, the beleaguered English professor who was the protagonist of Julie Schumacher's very funny Dear Committee Members, takes us on a return trip to Payne University in Schumacher's new book, The Shakespeare Requirement. Fitger, pompous and irascible as ever, finds himself elected chair of the English department, and he has no idea of the chaos and aggravation that awaits him.

As if having to work on substandard equipment and in squalid conditions isn't bad enough, the Economics Department and its chair, Roland Gladwell, who convinced the university and corporate sponsors that his department needed state-of-the-art classrooms and technology, now has his eye on the English Department's remaining space. Fitger has to guard himself against angry wasps, faulty air conditioning, and a computer that might work—if he could ever get the University's IT department to schedule an appointment. (And don't try to set up a meeting with him on P-Cal, the university-wide calendar system, as he refuses to use it.)

But these problems are just the tip of the iceberg. He has to deal with a department in shambles, get his colleagues to adopt a new-agey Statement of Vision for the department (just ridiculous), and his attempts to get a 90-year-old Shakespearean scholar to retire backfire when the man convinces the press that Shakespeare isn't important to the English Department any longer. Plus, any requests he has have to be approved by the dean, who happens to be his ex-wife's lover. It's enough to make any man crumble.

The Shakespeare Requirement follows Fitger as he navigates university and department politics, tries to figure out exactly what his relationship is with his ex-wife, and wonders what secrets his assistant, Fran, is hiding. The book shifts narration among a number of characters—Fitger, his ex-wife Janet; Philip, Fitger's boss and Janet's lover; Fran; Roland Gladwell; Professor Cassovan, the Shakespeare expert; and Angela, a sheltered student away from home for the first time.

What I enjoyed so much about Dear Committee Members (see my review) is that it was an epistolary novel—the whole story was told through letters Fitger wrote to various people within and outside the university. His voice was tremendously memorable and at times hysterically funny, plus it reminded me of a committee chairman I was working with at the time.

However, this book is told in the traditional narrative style, which didn't quite work for me. While most of the characters used the same pompous, high-brow language that Fitger did in the earlier book, the story didn't flow as well in this manner. I thought there were too many characters to follow, and after a while there were so many machinations to keep straight, so much politics to navigate, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

Stories of systemic dysfunction and office politics are often humorous, and some may find this funnier than I did. There's no doubt that Schumacher is a talented storyteller, and these characters are fascinating. I'd love her to write another epistolary novel someday—it's a terrific change of pace!

NetGalley and Doubleday Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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