Book review: The Education of Nancy Adams


Danial Syed



First of all, I have a confession to make.  When I picked up my copy of Larry Baker’s The Education of Nancy Adams last Friday, I defied what is, perhaps, the iron-law of reading–I judged the book by its cover.

In my defense, it’s not every day that I see my principal Dr. Jerry Arganbright on a novel’s cover.  The same goes for Mrs. Amy Kanellis, one of West High’s guidance counselors.   Fascinatingly, the Education of Nancy Adams’s title page shows Arganbright and Kanellis standing face-to-face, at the end of a hallway in City High.  This novel’s chapters, moreover, each begin with a photograph–some taken at West, some shot at City, one taken at the Mercer Park Recreation Center, and even a couple showing a U.S soldier during the Vietnam War–as well as an (often cynical) quote about education. The first of these quotes is shown below:

Education. n.: That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding. –Ambrose Bierce

With this statement, we readers are thrust into the world of Nancy Adams, the novel’s narrator.  She starts her tale by describing her perfect vision and low blood pressure, traits that make her a great with a gun.  She then declares that she likes shooting things, and briefly reflects on how terrifying she, as a woman with a gun, must be to some men.

Having grown up in a world of stereotypical characters–in movies, TV shows, books, and the like–it’s easy for us readers to make assumptions about Adams.  If the novel’s chapters had went on to describe a series of shooting competitions in which Adams beats all of the men, and then her home on a ranch in Arizona, and then her team-up with the NRA to take down the anti-second amendment liberal onslaught, I wouldn’t have been surprised.  But no.  Nancy Adams isn’t some gun-toting country caricature–she’s Nancy Adams, no more and no less.  In The Education of Nancy Adams, Baker’s characters aren’t stereotypes.  They’re inconsistent, bizarre, and so very real. 

Nancy Adams the gun-slinging gal is also a former Valedictorian, who received a full scholarship to attend Notre Dame University.  Educated or not, however, Adams is far from happy.  Her husband Jack is dead, and learning of his near-countless affairs has left Adams in an emotional wreck.  She’s thirty-seven years old, lives alone in the home she grew up in, and has no idea what to do with her life–until she gets a phone call from Russell.   Russell was one of Adam’s teachers in high school–and her ultimate crush.  Now he’s the principal of Kennedy High, and he’s offered Adams a job to get her back on her feet.  But of course, things aren’t as simple as they might seem.  At Kennedy High, Adams finds herself in the midst of a thousand separate struggles: conflicts over love, race, sexual orientation, depression, religion, suicide, and so much more.  Yet the story doesn’t feel jagged or stretched too thin; its plot flows smoothly, filled with lovable (and hate-able) characters that are propelled to maturity (and im-maturity) by its current.  The Education of Nancy Adams grabs attention and doesn’t let go; it constantly finds novel ways to keep its readers’ interest, through an exciting plot, clever wordplay, and much more.

The bad?  Not much.  Any would-be readers should probably know that the book’s title is a play off of the book The Education of Henry Adams, first published in 1907.  Through this book, writer Henry Adams reflects on the major social, political, scientific, and technological changes that occurred over his lifetime–as well as how his formal education failed to help him deal with these.  Certain parts of The Education of Nancy Adams seem to assume a reader’s knowledge of Mr. Adams, so it’d be best for a would-be reader to at least be familiar with him.  Truly, the only real complaint I have about the book is that its characters are very open about sharing their deep and dark secrets–a little too open.  While most of the characters, at least, carry at least one or two secrets that they’re reluctant to share, they commonly discuss their inner feelings with unnatural readiness…even those that deal with sensitive issues such as affairs they’ve had with their students, and the like.  Deep inner feelings and secrets, in short, fly around like quaffles in a game of quidditch.

All in all, The Education of Nancy Adams is an excellent read–highly recommended!  With a flourish, Baker has crafted a swirling whirlpool of sorts: a world that sucks readers in, bringing them to feast at an Atlantis of emotional and intellectual stimulation.  In other words…it’s awesome!   So don’t hesitate to grab a copy of The Education of Nancy Adams at a Larry Baker book talk near you.Yes, I said a book talkThe Education of Nancy Adams is available only from Baker personally, as well as from the website of his publisher, Ice Cube Press.  But if you feel like your kindle will perish without this book in its databases, never fear; this amazing read will be available in e-book form (and in bookstores) this June.