Book Review: “The Fiction Class” by Susan Breen, published by Plume, 2008
A mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of “The Fiction Class,” but thankfully, this book is nothing like “Mommie Dearest.”
Arabella Hicks, 38, is a devoted daughter and a novelist who teaches an adult-education writing class. She was named after a romance-book heroine, but she has a nonexistent love life. She considers writing holy, which might be a reason she’s having the toughest time finishing a seven-year-old manuscript.
Wednesday is the highlight not only of her week, but her life. She teaches that day and afterward, she visits her mother at the nursing home. These are the two most important things in her life. We get to know Arabella, who is smart and funny, through her class and her visits.
At first glance, Vera is a stereotypical mother who’s overprotective and likes to argue. When Arabella is late because she talked to the receptionist, Vera scolds her: “I see you once a week and you spend the time talking to someone you wish was your mother.” It’s the beginning of another argument.
Arabella’s 11 students also seem stereotypical at first. She’s even quick to judge them. She assumes Conrad is transsexual since he writes all about transsexuals. Chuck is genial and carefree, so he must think that life is “just one big party.” When beautiful Mimi, 22, fails to show up in class, Arabella concludes the girl must be hungover.
Readers get to follow Arabella for 10 weeks, which is how long the class lasts. Slowly the novel unveils truths about Vera, Arabella’s students, and Arabella herself. The revelations lead to surprising twists.
Susan Breen, a writing instructor at Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City, succeeds in writing dynamic relationships among her characters, making us care about them. She doesn’t succumb to mother-daughter melodrama. The subplot about Arabella’s burgeoning relationship with Chuck is refreshing.
If you’re a writer or a writing student, you have to read this book. You get to experience Arabella’s class vicariously; you can even try doing her writing exercises. Toward the end of the book, Arabella tells her students, “Voice is the reason you write. Voice is you.” In “The Fiction Class,” Breen’s voice is loud and clear. If this were a movie, it would be dramedy at its finest—touching, funny, and keenly observant.
I was fortunate to be in Breen’s class when I attended the New York Pitch Conference in September 2014. You can read more about my experience at the conference here.