The end of summer marks the start of my favorite time of year. By late August, the coming of autumn is in the air. The humidity finally starts to abate and my garden is as abundant as ever. A little vacation to round out the summer doesn’t hurt either.
When my family and I head over to Deep Creek Lake for a relaxing week together away from the bustle of our normal lives, I most anticipate digging into as many books as possible in just seven days. I line up requests from the library weeks, if not months, in advance and pour over book reviews in order to make the most prudent choices regarding my reading materials. This summer I think I’ve done pretty well. And if I had to declare a single favorite from among all the novels I gorged on while away, Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing would easily win the prive.
The story of a teacher and his students at a Parisian school for diplomat’s students, You Deserve Nothing centers upon one of the international school’s most adored teachers, Will Silver, and two of the school’s most interesting students, Marie and Gilad. From the get go, I sensed that the beloved Mr. Silver allowed too many teacher-student boundaries to be crossed, from the manner in which his students were allowed to address him to his acceptance of an invitation to attend a student’s rowdy end of the school year party. It is often noted how his students all seem to fall in love with Will and even readers will find themselves unable to resist this character despite his pronounced flaws. Eventually that most dangerous of all lines is forsaken when Will and Marie become romantically involved with one another. This underlying premise rung a little tired to me, but I was not overly bothered by its commonality because of the brilliance with which Maksik tells the story.
Will develops a seminar for a select group of senior students which lays the real foundation for this novel. The course brings together a central core of important characters, including the somewhat reclusive Gilad, and allows them to explore literature and philosophy, debating the merit and weight of texts from thinkers such as Sartre and Camus in an adult fashion. These theoretical discussions parallel some of the central conflicts of Maksik’s story, of morality, courage, and existentialism. You Deserve Nothing could even be considered a modern adaptation of Camus’ The Stranger, one of the texts included in Silver’s course.
Though a lesser writer of this same story would have had many opportunities to go wrong, Maksik’s vividly drawn, compelling characters and thoughtful construction brilliantly carry this novel. The alluring beauty of Paris is subtly woven throughout, painting a most seductive portrait of France’s greatest city that is quite simply irresistible. The philosophical underpinnings that bind all these elements into an engrossing story are never forced or contrived, but rather finely complement the narratives provided from the perspectives of Will, Gilad, and Marie. Although it had much more depth and resonance than your typical beach read, Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing was by all means a great vacation novel, quickly engaging, fast-paced, and even slightly scandalous.