Set in a small, unnamed university town in the northeast United States, American writer Susan Choi’s erotic novel, My Education
(2013), is told by grad student Regina Gottlieb as she chronicles her passage through school and the first trials of adulthood. Regina’s written reflections, characteristically stilted and overly intellectual at times, give narrative shape to the anxieties she feels as a young female scholar in the surprisingly sexualized environment of modern academia. The novel centers on Regina’s first serious adult relationship, her evolving sense of sexuality and sexual identity, and her ambivalence about institutions such as monogamy and the university system.
The novel opens as Regina begins her first year of graduate school. Formerly a high-achieving English major, she looks forward to returning to academia. Her university is a few hours outside New York City, nestled in a quaint town that offers refuge from the busy world outside it. Regina’s first grad school encounter is with the notorious Professor Nicholas Brodeur, known for his sexually suggestive remarks and differential treatment of female and male students. Regina quickly becomes well aware of his habit of trying to seduce his students; at the same time, she feels sexually attracted to him. She decides to enroll in his classes just to have an opportunity to speak with him. When they meet, he reciprocates her attraction. Regina also has a sexual relationship with her roommate, the bookish and eccentric Dutra.
One evening, Regina attends a dinner party hosted by Professor Brodeur and his wife, Martha, also a professor at the university. They are new parents to a baby boy, Joachim. Regina gets very drunk and ends up vomiting in Brodeur’s bathroom, where Martha comforts her. They develop a sudden sexual tension, and the night marks the beginning of a passionate love affair that trumps Regina’s connection to Brodeur. Martha soon begins to distance herself from Brodeur, though she tries to pass it off as unrelated to her relationship with Regina. Meanwhile, Regina becomes territorial about Martha. This leads to many arguments as they try to navigate their private and public lives; however, they resolve their disagreements by having passionate sex. Martha and Brodeur later separate, agreeing to share custody of Joachim. Meanwhile, Martha and Dutra become close friends and begin to develop sexual tension.
The boundaries between Martha and Regina’s public and private lives start to dissolve when Martha agrees to bring Regina along as her date to an important university event. Regina prepares all day for the event and is upset when Martha fails to arrive on time. Instead of Martha, Dutra arrives in tears and confesses that he and Martha had sex. Arriving to apologize separately for what happened, Martha gets into an altercation with Dutra. Recognizing that her relationship with Martha cannot go on, Regina copes by drinking too much alcohol. A couple of weeks later, Regina gets into a drunken accident and sustains a concussion. She later finds Brodeur at a club and becomes progressively drunker and more disoriented. Brodeur takes her home to take care of her. For several weeks, they care for each other as a way of coping with their split with Martha.
The final section of the novel takes place 15 years after Regina moves away from the university town. Now a successful, married novelist and a mother, Regina lives in a bigger city on the East Coast. Dutra reconnects with her during a bad break from a woman he impulsively married, but soon after, he leaves for the West Coast. Still, he and Regina manage to rebuild their friendship. Brodeur also returns to Regina, but his effort to reconnect only superficially succeeds. Regina flies to the West Coast to meet Martha, with the ulterior motive of bringing Martha back together with Dutra. After Regina and Martha have passionate sex, Regina cleverly sets up Martha and Dutra without them knowing. She flies back east to her family, leaving her old relationships behind finally and with a new sense of control over her life.