Monday, 27 October 2014

Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

I could try and be clever and write my review for Dear Committee Members - a collection of fictional letters written by a professor - as a letter of recommendation (LOR), but author Julie Schumacher has done such a great job with her book that any LOR I write would look awful.

Jason Fitger teaches creative writing and literature at a small arts college. His ex-wife hates him, his ex-girlfriend's feelings towards him are not much above freezing, the economics department on the floor above his is having millions spent on a refurbishment, no one will give his star pupil Darren Browles a chance, and Fitger spends most of his time writing LORs for various ex-pupils and colleagues.

A collection of letters might not sound like a barrel of laughs, but from the opening missive (an LOR to a literary residency), Dear Committee Members is a laugh out loud read. There are constant references to the Seminar, on which Fitger based  the one book that made him momentarily famous, and where he made friends who would go on to become frustrated with him and his clearly nitpicky, slightly selfish ways. Fitger's letters, whether they be to the new head of his department (a sociologist), or to the dean of the college, or to a food company seeking to employ one of his former students, are full of humour, tinged with bitterness, and flavoured with exasperation.

But the reason Dear Committee Members is so good is because, even though Fitger is clearly an annoying guy, he's also a guy who really cares about (one of) his students, and who tries his hardest to get help for Darren. He may be ornery and stuck in his ways (email recommendation forms are one of Fitger's pet hates and this provides great amusement) but as the book moves forward you can see that beneath the bluster Fitger is a guy who cares. He may hurt people, but he doesn't intend to. It's just, you know, sometimes you end up sending an email to every member of college staff instead of just your ex-wife who you still love.

The art of writing letters is slowly disappearing, but Schumacher’s hilarious, heart-warming and, at times, sad, novel is a perfect illustration of the power of words written in ink on paper. Epistolary novels are difficult to pull off, but Schumacher succeeds, putting together a novel through which the voice and character of the protagonist shine through in every funny, painful, cringe-worthy and heartbreaking letter. In the course of dozens of letters, Schumacher gives us a character who is believable, exasperating, and dare I say it, loveable. I'm not writing a letter of recommendation, but if I was, I'd recommend you read this book.


How I got this book: From the publisher, The Friday Project. This did not affect my review.

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