At its heart, The Foreign Student (Harper Collins, 1998) — a brilliantly realized debut novel by Susan Choi — is a love story. Yet it seems fitting that at the story’s triumphal conclusion, the lovers in question, while united, are physically miles apart. For what this novel best illuminates are the peculiarities of isolation and the distances that divide us, even in the heart of love.
On his first morning in America, Chang Ahn — who goes by Chuck, thanks to a rechristening years before by an American serviceman — rises to a breakfast of poached eggs, fried ham, grits with butter, a half grapefruit, and a short stack of buttermilk pancakes. He eats only the grapefruit. The year is 1955, the town is Sewanee, Tenn. Chuck has come from Korea to attend the University of the South. The well-meaning housekeeper of the college’s vice chancellor fusses over him, as Chuck cautiously takes in his new surroundings, his responses to her attentions sawed from a rusty English.
Enter Katherine Monroe — bright, pretty, charming and aloof. The daughter of a wealthy New Orleans couple, Katherine, now 28 and unmarried, has taken up residence in Sewanee, in her family’s deserted summer house. Though she’s lived in the town for several years, she still retains the air of an itinerant. She is mysterious (probably most so to herself), a woman given to long solo road trips that wend aimlessly from Kentucky to Alabama, only to return to the mountains at dusk, with the sun at her back (having outraced what?, one wonders). But it’s her car that makes Katherine useful to the college, and she’s arrived at the vice chancellor’s home to ferry Chuck to his dormitory. She plays guide to Chuck’s newcomer (a nice role, if you yourself feel unmoored), and the two immediately, if guardedly, sense a kind of kinship.
Sewanee proves a fitting backdrop for this courtship of misfits. Set in the cool mountains, the town is the summertime refuge of the South’s well-to-do. As Choi writes, “No one remembered which had come first: the well-heeled old women or the striped picnic tents on the quad; a dance orchestra in the evenings sometimes, all the way down from Nashville… .” Abandoned by the local college students in summer, its houses filled with widows and seasonal visitors, Sewanee is a town of remainders, sleepy under green leaves.
As the story ducks from present to past, casting up scenes of Chuck and Katherine’s deepening love — not to mention the histories that divide them and render their alliance all the more improbable — portraits of these remainders are briefly yet fully illumined, as if caught in the sweep of a lighthouse beam. Take Mrs. Wade, Chuck’s house mother, one of the legion of self-sufficient, lonely women who minister to the college’s students. Mrs. Wade hoards wrapping paper, used gift bows, and, it turns out, a cabinet full of brandy, locked in the bathroom beneath a “fluffy pink talcumy rug.”
These are the details of loneliness, masterfully sculpted by Choi’s gliding, sure-footed prose, oddly free of sentimentality. Her triumphs (and this is no mean feat) lie in describing those moments when we wait, walled up — with nothing particular happening, yet everything at stake. At one point, seeking to renounce his growing attraction to Katherine, Chuck barricades himself in his dormitory, during the Christmas break. He sets himself a “daily system,” studying all day and preparing bland meals of Bisquick and rice. He is solitary and, he convinces himself, happy. This goes on for days, until “he heard Katherine’s car arrive in front of the house like a hole torn in his perfect deprivation. … He might have left her house the night before.”
I read this novel fresh from a spate of trash reading (the kind of kick that leaves one touchy because the library doesn’t stock more Dean Koontz), and there’s nothing like such a bout to fill one with such questions as: What makes a book good? Why is a trashy book so entertaining, yet bad? Who am I to judge? and the like. And then along comes The Foreign Student, and the answer resounds: Yes, Virginia, there is a difference in good prose, a plot of careful devising, and a consciousness fully probed.
Some authors craft sentences, others deal in chapters; but Choi’s terrain is paragraphs. The style is lyrical without being pretty, the attention to form overlaid with a sort of ranging sensuality, the paragraph often closing on an unexpected lilt, like a poem (read the paragraph, too lengthy to excerpt here, that stretches from page 136-137, to see what I mean.) Comparisons are grim, but Choi’s prose often reminded me of poems by Deborah Gottlieb Garrison (both women are staffers at The New Yorker).
The masterly paragraphs in The Foreign Student seem peculiarly dense, almost aqueous, as if the reader were weighed down by details of the lives one was reading about. Maybe it’s this sense of heft that keeps the story — which describes isolation — from seeming barren, depressed. After all, a person alone is free to observe, and what is an observer but a person who cultivates the company of the larger world? The Foreign Student is a tale of such a larger world, all the more beautiful for having been reached by a solitary, roving path.