Rick Tetzeli
July 29, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

An Expensive Education

Current Status
In Season
Nick McDonell
Atlantic Monthly Press
Fiction, Mystery and Thriller

We gave it an A-

For decades, the intersection of the Ivy League and the CIA has made for good storytelling. But most of these are august tales of the Cold War, told from the wise, occasionally stuffy viewpoint of an old master. Now the 25-year-old McDonell — who burst onto the literary scene at 17 with his novel Twelve — has enlivened the genre with An Expensive Education. The hero, the aptly named Teak, is a tough-guy Harvard grad whose connections and integrity lead him to intelligence work in Africa, where he witnesses a bombing massacre that kills dozens of civilians. The incident is used to implicate Hatashil, an African freedom fighter, but Teak knows that this isn’t the truth. The novel hinges on his attempt to find out what really happened, since his little bit of knowledge is pretty damn complicated. Teak and the book’s other central characters — including Hatashil; Jane, the smart, privileged Harvard girl; David, the African student adrift among Crimson preppies; Susan Lowell, the prof who’s just won a Pulitzer for her hagiography of Hatashil — all face decisions involving trust, reputation, and honor. For each of them, the cost of doing the right thing will be high, especially when figuring out just what’s ”right” is so hard. Tempered by some hilarious insider glimpses of Harvard life, An Expensive Education is terrific, a thriller noir that’s difficult to put down or forget. A?

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