Cover image for : a love story
Title: : a love story
Coll, Susan.
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Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [2001]

Physical Description:
254 pages ; 22 cm
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Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Library

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Ella Kennedy is in a rut. Nearly thirty, she's at risk of becoming both a perpetual graduate student and a continual failure at relationships. After spending three years at Columbia University ripping up outlines for her thesis topic of Marxist scholarship, she takes a job in Washington, D.C., at the fledgling Institute of Thought. Her assignment: establish a Web site and mail-order catalogue to market Karl Marx paraphernalia. Her dilemma: she is both computer illiterate and distracted by a thesis topic that she finds engaging. Against her advisor's wishes, she sets out to document the tragic life of Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor -- a brilliant woman who fell apart during the course of a bad relationship. Meanwhile, Ella meets Nigel Lark, an adorably disheveled ornithologist with a delicious British accent; it is love at first sight. But as their relationship develops, Ella realizes that her own life is starting to mirror Eleanor's. For one thing, Nigel wears a wedding band and he doesn't want to talk about it... Deftly weaving fact and fiction, past and present, socialist theory and side-splitting humor, Susan Coll presents a warm and witty novel in the tradition of Cathleen Schine, Laura Zigman, and the Ephron sisters. is a love story full of wonderful absurdities.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Farcical and full of plot twists, Coll's novel is a poignant tale of insecurity and obsession. Ella Kennedy is a graduate student in political theory, struggling to write a doctoral thesis about Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor, while supporting herself as a waitress. Things seem to be looking up when she moves to Washington, D.C., to create a commercial Web site about Marx for the Institute of Thought, but shortly thereafter Ella meets Nigel, an absent-minded, emotionally vulnerable ornithologist whose wife has left him, and, in spite of his self-absorption, falls madly in love. Flashing back and forth between the chaos in Ella's own life and the life of the unhappy Eleanor Marx, Coll examines the question, Why do otherwise intelligent women get involved with men who take advantage of them? Although the ending is unsatisfying, as Ella doesn't seem to learn much from her travails, the reader will gain a great deal of insight into the ways in which passion can mislead even the most rational, educated woman. --Bonnie Johnston

Publisher's Weekly Review

A 20th-century graduate student discovers that she and Karl Marx's daughter are doppelg„ngers in this heartfelt but awkward debut novel. Modern-day Ella Kennedy is a Ph.D. candidate struggling to complete her dissertation on Eleanor Marx before her wealthy father cuts her off. To support herself, Ella lands a job at a consulting firm called the Institute of Thought, whose sole client a group known as the Neoclassicists for Universal Thought and Study (NUTS) wants Ella to set up a Web site hawking Karl Marx merchandise. She soon falls in love with a stammering, attractive Englishman (who happens to looks just like Hugh Grant), despite the fact that he's married. He moves in with her, refuses to talk about his past and begins writing an existentialist play set in a discount store. As this untenable situation deteriorates, Ella begins to pick up disturbing echoes of her life in the history of Eleanor Marx, who fell in with a no-good Englishman of her own a century before. Will Ella share Eleanor's tragic fate? By the end, the question is leached of interest, overwhelmed by Coll's labored humor and by the meandering story line. Most problematic is the wildly inconsistent tone: sometimes the novel reads like satire (TV crews camp outside Ella's workplace hoping to catch a glimpse of what they believe is America's last remaining Marxist), and at other times, it reads like the most banal kind of realism (for example, giving far too much detail on Ella's failure to understand PageMaker and HTML). The novel has potential the irony of exploiting Marx for financial gain is a promising premise, as is the aimlessness of a young woman without a cause but it never quite reaches fruition. Agent, Melanie Jackson. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Prologue I will confess at the outset that my interest in political theory stems largely from a crush on a former professor, and has never had much, if anything at all, to do with politics. While palm trees tilted outside a pink stucco classroom, Louis Schwartz tackled Marxism with a vengeance that would have alarmed Karl himself. He interrupted a lecture on surplus value once to berate a student for bleaching her hair. He threatened to drop another girl's grade from a C to a D if she continued to wear red lipstick. He taught Marx as pure science, forcing us to commit to memory formulas derived from Capital: Let us assume that the line A B represents the length of the necessary working-time, say 6 hours. If the labour be prolonged 1, 3, or 6 hours beyond A B, we have 3 other lines: Working-day I. A-------B-C Working-day II. A-----B---C Working-day III. A----B----C representing 3 different working-days of 7, 9, and 12 hours. The extension B C of the line A B represents the length of the surplus-labour. As the working-day is A B+B or A C, it varies with the variable quantity B C. Since A B is constant, the ratio of B C to A B can always be calculated. In working-day I, it is 1/6, in working-day II, 3/6, in working-day III, 6/6 of A B... There was much of this sort of ground to cover before the semester was through: the general formula for capital and the quantitative determination of relative value, not to mention exchange value and surplus value and the fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof. All of which was vaguely interesting, of course, but it was really Louis Schwartz himself, with his swarthy rock-star good looks, combined improbably with a thick Brooklyn accent, that kept me awake during those early morning lectures. I was not the only girl hanging on his every word. We dutifully recorded his lectures in our spiral notebooks and braved a few odd, ignorant questions. The girl who continued to wear red lipstick was especially full of inquiry, her flailing hand constantly vying for Louis Schwartz's attention: "If one use-value is not exchanged for another of the same kind," she asked during a particularly mind-numbing seminar on the twofold character of the labor embodied in commodities, "how do you explain used-car transactions?" Professor Schwartz seemed delighted with these sorts of questions. Not because they demonstrated any understanding of the subject matter, but because they showed that at least some of us were taking Marx seriously: we needed to master these sorts of details if we were to go off and form our own socialist cooperatives in downtown Los Angeles. Or whatever it was we were meant to do with the blueprints for a communist society when the Berlin Wall was crumbling as we took our notes. That my parents did not approve of my flirtation with campus communism went without saying. But then it was tough to recall a time when any of my variously fleeting ideologies had earned their praise. Certainly not when, as an eleven-year-old, I had liberated all of the meat in our sub-zero freezer and fed it to the neighbor's dog in a zealous attack of vegetarianism. Nor did they show much enthusiasm when I became enamored of existentialism as a brooding high school junior and took to chain-smoking cigarettes and quoting Sartre at dinner. At least they had my two older sisters to brag about, who were typically less tiresome. They brought home trophies from their field hockey games to line the mantelpiece, dated well-dressed Gatsby-like boys who were good at sports, and then attended Sarah Lawrence and Vassar, respectively. And to enable children to live such privileged lives was, of course, the very point of my ancestors' many years of struggle. My family had worked very hard to reach the gilded shores of America, and once settled, became skilled manipulators of the capitalist system. My grandparents had fled from Germany to New Jersey during the war, whereupon they changed their name from Stein to Kennedy and flirted briefly with Catholicism before settling, with some discomfort, into a life of agnostic anti-Semitism. Their oldest son, my father, subsequently moved to Maryland, married a woman named Bunny Rosen who was all too happy to become a Kennedy, and founded the most successful chain of discount department stores in the mid-Atlantic region. He then wrote a book entitled Bulk Discounting, which confounded many people, including myself, by remaining on the best-seller list for nearly a decade. All this at least partly explained my need to temporarily escape to California, if not my attraction to a radical bearded professor. The college had seen fit to pair me with a roommate who was in every way my opposite. Devon was exquisitely blond, beautiful, petite, and from an enviably repressed family in San Marino. In contrast I would probably be described as ordinary were it not for my long, chaotic dark hair, which was usually so incorrigible as to be worthy of remark. I was also several inches taller than I wished to be. Perhaps due to years of unrelenting suggestions from my mother about ways to self-improve, I had grown to feel more awkward and unattractive than really necessary. Devon intuitively sensed my plight and took pity. She brought me back doggie bags from her dates with fellow premeds, understanding that one didn't go out for a lot of surf and turf dinners when hanging out with Marxists. She harbored no illusions about changing the world; she planned only to become skilled at taking expensive images of it as a radiologist. While Devon met the love of her life playing Frisbee in the quad during her senior year, none of my college romances went much further than the odd one-night stand. On an emotional level, no relationship went any further than the one with Louis Schwartz, which admittedly did not go very far at all. He happened to be married, for one thing. I was only one of many groupies, considering the number of girls who turned up most Friday nights when we assembled at a local bar, ordered bottle after bottle of cheap red wine, and talked about the plight of migrant farmworkers. Still, I had reason to believe there was something between us. There had been that time, for example, when he invited me to his house, and we worked together late into the night strategizing about how to best orchestrate a campus boycott of grapes. His wife was out of town, and our thighs had brushed together as we sat side by side on the leather couch, squeezing lime into our Mexican beer. When we finally parted, he had kissed me once on each cheek, and then -- in what quickly became the most reflected-upon kiss in human history -- I thought his lips touched mine, if only for a second. One agonizing month later, I boldly presented myself at the door to his smoky, paper-strewn office and asked if we could talk. He seemed vaguely annoyed -- it was not official office hours, and he claimed to have been in the middle of composing our midterm exam -- but he motioned for me to come in. I took a seat in a creaky folding chair underneath a poster of Che Guevara and put my backpack on my lap. I quickly lost my nerve and felt very small and stupid and wished I were back in my dorm room. I began to speak, nonetheless. I don't remember my choice of words, exactly, but I pretty much declared myself to be in love with him. As I spoke I started to cry, understanding intuitively what he was about to say. I wiped my nose on my sleeve and tried to look composed. He appeared to be mildly bemused, and took a few long, hard drags on his cigarette before responding. He tried to be polite. He said that he found me "not unlovely." He scratched his beard and thought some more. "Your father is the Karl Marx of retail," he continued, "and this explains many things." I was unsure of whether any of this was meant as compliment, and had been unaware that he knew I was my father's daughter. The phone on his desk began to ring, and I excused myself, anxious to flee his presence. I had no idea at the time that I would never see him again. The next day, while pondering his riddle at the library, ravaging the stacks in search of Karl Marx's views on bulk discounting, unconfirmed reports that Louis Schwartz had died began to circulate through the tiny campus. I ran from the library and found a small group of attractive girls gathered outside the building that housed his office, peering through the ground-floor window in disbelief. His black leather jacket was still draped behind his empty swivel chair, suspended in time like the music left blaring on the car radio after a wreck. And so began the flurry of unconfirmed rumors. One version of events had him accidentally walking through the plate-glass window outside the dining hall, a story partially corroborated by a pool of blood and shards of glass (later attributed to the previous night's fraternity party). The rumor with the most cachet -- the one that was later confirmed with some small variations -- was that he had been hit by a truck driven by inebriated migrant farmworkers while crossing Los Feliz Boulevard against the light. He had, some said, been holding the hand of the girl with the red lipstick. While I had gotten the answer I wasn't looking for about our lack of a future together, other questions remained. What the fuck was Professor Schwartz talking about, for example? Why was my father the Karl Marx of retail? What did he mean by "not unlovely"? Was not unlovely more linguistically akin to lovely, or not lovely? In the months and then the years that followed I continued to weave my way through a maze of undergraduate courses, from political theory since Aristotle to advanced seminars on being and time. I later wound up at the London School of Economics, where studying political philosophy was still considered worthwhile. Eventually I landed at Columbia University, where I hoped to earn my Ph.D. I was, I suppose, thrashing about like a just-caught fish, searching not for water but for context; for some body of work, some set of principles, that might give purpose to the spiritually empty but materially entitled childhood I had spent charging meals at country clubs and loitering in shopping malls. This is all post-facto conjecture, of course. At the time I was mostly operating on the romantic notion that studying political theory, and Marxism in particular, would bring me somehow closer to the dead professor I had once found so attractive. Although I had always done reasonably well, earning A's on exams and writing compelling essays that were often rewarded with departmental distinction, there was a level at which I was really just winging my way through school without truly comprehending in a big-picture sort of way. This caught up with me when it came time to write my dissertation, and I began to seriously flounder. The idea of pulling together a treatise that would present some novel idea to the world and simultaneously herald my arrival as an official political theorist (and thereby justify some seven years of higher education at an expense I dared not calculate) was suddenly and completely paralyzing. It forced me to contemplate questions such as what, exactly, was my niche in this dying field of Marxist scholarship, and more to the point, what did I intend to do after finally earning my degree? Suffice it to say I was not the only one posing this latter question. At first I considered working on an analysis of the transition from a socialist to a consumer economy in the former Soviet Union, but I felt that I was in over my head, being more of a theorist than an economist-type person. Instead I chose to analyze Marxism in relation to Mao, but after a full year of contemplation I decided that not only was my topic a bit dense, but I would probably need to learn something about China, first. Three years passed, during which time I managed to fill five shoe boxes with index cards, purchase hundreds of dollars worth of thick academic tomes, and embark on three failed relationships. Somewhere during that period, my father stopped sending me a monthly stipend, forcing me to explore a secondary career as one of the most highly educated waitresses in America. Then, while browsing in a used-book store in Soho one day, I stumbled onto a biography of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx's youngest daughter. Curiously, in all of my many years of scholarship, I had never paused to consider the idea that Karl Marx might have had a family. I was intrigued by the blurb on the back of the book that described Eleanor as having grown up, quite literally, beside the thickening manuscript of Das Kapital. The blurb also alluded to her troubled personal life, including a long-term relationship with a married man. A relationship that apparently led to her suicide. My head may have been mostly awash with abstract ideas, but I considered myself walking evidence that the little personal things in life (e.g., like a crush on a professor) tended to dictate events in the larger sphere (e.g., my costly education). Perhaps, then, there was some way to shed light on Marx, and on Marxism (and on the state of the world at the dawn of this new century!) by figuring out how and why Karl Marx's daughter might have killed herself. I was certain I had found my subject, at last, though it was a struggle to convey the idea convincingly. My doctorate advisor, a scowling, frustrated little man named Ira who had been unable to find a publisher for his own opus on Kant, was not enthusiastic. "You can't simply string a bunch of biographical material together and call it a dissertation," he said, not unreasonably. Ira worked out of a cramped studio apartment on the upper Upper West Side, and his earthy wife (replete with loopy earrings and Birkenstocks) and a menacing-looking brown dog the size of a small pony were invariably present during our meetings, listening in, witnesses to my cumulative failures. "The point of a dissertation is not simply to rehash history, but to come up with something new," he continued, while his wife pretended to be busy with a crossword puzzle. "You should think of your thesis as a science project," he advised. "You should do the theoretical equivalent of discovering a cure for AIDS. You should find a new planet, so to speak, or identify a new form of mold. At the very least, you ought to set out to unearth previously unknown documents. Spend a year in Europe or something. Go dig through archives, search for old letters." I looked at him blankly. "I was thinking of something along the lines of showing how the personal is political," I declared after a few minutes of awkward silence. "Oh," he said, struggling to be constructive. "Do you mean that you want to demonstrate how Eleanor, as a daughter, influenced the role of the female in Marxist literature...or affected socialist thinking on birth control and population growth or..." "No, not really," I interrupted. "But those are terrific ideas...I'm really much more interested in the family-life aspect. In how Karl Marx might have been as a father and consequently how that might have affected Eleanor's life choices and give insight into why she fell for a man who was a jerk. I mean, I might also want to consider the ancillary question of why smart women fall for bad men," I added, thinking out loud. Ira began to scowl again, and reminded me that I was working toward my doctorate in political theory, not pop psychology. Still, he kept trying: "Perhaps what you want to do is deconstruct Eleanor Marx. I mean, I suppose you could view her as a marginalized figure in nineteenth-century literature," he said tentatively. "Yes, exactly!" I had no real grasp of what he meant but was anxious to end the conversation already. I had made it a point to avoid all classes on deconstruction, and refused to even consider enrolling in courses I considered trendy, such as anything with a reference to postmodernism in its catalogue description. We went on to have a vague discussion about time frames and deadlines and interim status reports. I said goodbye to his wife; the dog grabbed on to my pocketbook and I dragged him with me to the elevator, trying to remain calm. At about this same time, I received a phone call from Lisa, my best friend, and idol, from graduate school. We had first met in a seminar on socialist literature in post-colonial India. I had admired her shoes, and she sent me to Bloomingdales, where I found them on sale. She had a sort of magnetism, a sort of designer political theorist aura that I sought to emulate. She always dressed in black, wore her silky long hair in a gravity-defying construct held together with what looked like twigs, and was fashionably pale. She was also very smart. Not to mention competent and directed. Impressionable as I was, I wanted to be her. The next best thing was to be her friend, a position I enjoyed but which ultimately cast me into the humiliating state of perpetual jealousy. Not only did she manage to finish her dissertation without incident, but she married Roger, a popular classmate of ours who seemed both her physical and intellectual equal. They had a baby and moved to Washington, D.C., about a year later where she found an actual job in the actual field of political theory. She worked for a fledgling consulting firm called the Institute of Thought and had landed the job at roughly the same time I began my stint at Julio's Greek Diner. "Great news," she said, after we caught up on things like her son's many preschool achievements. "I'm hiring you!" "I'm not hireable," I protested. "I've finally figured out what I'm doing on my dissertation and I'm totally immersed in it now." This was only a partial lie: I had, in fact, read two biographies of Eleanor Marx and had even drafted the first few pages of my introduction, which was arguably the most progress I had made in years. "Besides," I added, "you know I couldn't possibly live in Washington. My parents are there and they would drive me insane." "Oh Ella," she insisted, "it's just for a while. Three months or so. You'll make tons of money -- it pays really generously -- and you're the perfect person. We need a Marxist." "I'm not a Marxist," I insisted, not for the first time. I launched a series of small related protests, but Lisa prevailed, as she always did. The project she had in mind for me would neatly parallel my dissertation, she urged, even though I had not yet actually described my latest topic to her. And sometimes, when one is stuck, she added politely, her voice growing small, a change of scenery can help. I bristled at her words but had to privately acknowledge their truth. I was stuck, repeatedly seduced by new beginnings, both of the academic and romantic varieties, that ultimately led nowhere. Even if I was stuck, the more urgent problem was that I was broke. I tried to avoid asking for help from my parents. Their checks came with an inflated emotional price tag and I found it preferable to live off leftovers from the Greek diner. I supplemented my diet with Top Ramen soup, alternating flavors for variety. Reluctantly, I packed up a few belongings and illegally sublet my student-subsidized apartment. I bailed my battered car out of the impound lot; threw Eeyore, my cat, into the backseat; and drove down the New Jersey Turnpike, toward Washington. My father, although he couldn't abide handing me hard cash to stay in New York, nonetheless agreed to put me up in a furnished apartment in a building he owned on Connecticut Avenue. I then prepared to check myself in for a financially rewarding and intellectually motivating stint at the Institute of Thought. So one might have reasonably chosen to absolve Louis Schwartz and my expensive liberal arts education on the charges of having corrupted my mind. My life was not, on the surface anyway, a complete disaster. I did not, for example, go off to fight other people's armed revolutions in the developing world. Instead, I had landed my first job somewhere in the vicinity of my field of study. But I was about to learn the hard way that some theories are better left unpracticed. That not everything you learn in books is true. That sometimes stuff just happens, and it is not always helpful to analyze that stuff to death. One day, for example, you might glimpse a man at a door -- a man in a scarf and an overcoat, perhaps -- and before the wisps of smoke from the end of his Camel have evaporated into the afternoon sunlight you might have fallen painfully, inexplicably, in love. Copyright © 2001 Susan Coll. All rights reserved.

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