Harvard Square: book review

Harvard Square

Harvard Square by Andre Aciman. Publisher: W.W. Norton (2013). Fiction. Hardcover. 304 pages. ISBN 9780393088601.

“I hated almost every member of my department, from the chairman down to the secretary, including my fellow graduate students, hated their mannered pieties, their monastic devotion to their budding profession, their smarmy, patrician airs dressed down to look a touch grungy. I scorned them, but I didn’t want to be like them because I knew that part of me couldn’t, while another wanted nothing more than to be cut from the same cloth.”

A melancholic, nostalgic autobiographical novel about belonging and assimilation that focuses on immigrants finding their place in America in the 70s. It’s set amidst the privileged enclave of the most elite academic environment. A place filled with the most intelligent, the wealthiest, the preppiest, the best of the best, the elite. A place where one looks down on the commoners who will never be able to emulate or understand a Harvard graduate’s life.

At Café Algiers, an Egyptian graduate student at Harvard meets Kalaj, a Tunisian cab driver, struggling to keep his green card. They have one commonality: both come from Arab states in the Mediterranean. For the homesick graduate student he’s happy to speak French with fellow exiles. The café serves as a place to meet new friends. For the Tunisian, the café’s his home apart from his miserable marriage and his cab. [“He was proud to know me, while outside of our tiny café society, I never wanted to be seen with him. He was a cabdriver, I was Ivy League. He was an Arab, I was a Jew. Otherwise we could have swapped roles in a second.”] Over the next several months these two men will test friendship’s bonds.

“He had as little patience for Islam as I for Judaism. Our indifference to religion, to our people, to the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, to so many issues that could easily have driven a wedge between us, our contempt for patriotism, for flags, for causes, or for any of the feel-good ideologies that had swept through Europe since the late sixties, left us with little else than a warped sense of loyalty—what he called complicite, complicity—for anyone who thought like us, who was like us.”

Andre Aciman lovingly describes Harvard Square through minute sensory detail, various meeting spots—Café Algiers, Casablanca, Harvest, street names and students versus year-round inhabitants. The reader will feel like she’s walking around with him on every page. His Middle Eastern characters are rich with background. In Kalaj he creates an explosive and derisive character to play off the graduate student. Does the reader want him to get his green card or be kicked out of the United States forever? He’s rather a cad. A player. He seduces women and brags about his conquests in the café the next morning. Women cry about him. He’s been married several times. He complains about America while waxing nostalgic about the pristine beaches of his native Tunisia yet yearns for a green card. Merely for the money or does he have a darker motive? And why does a Harvard doctorate student become both enamored and disgusted with Kalaj?

As much as our graduate student feels he’s an Egyptian, he’s also becoming comfortable at Harvard. He wants to succeed and belong. While he enjoys this new scene he never knew existed at Café Algiers, he understands that his future belongs to academia and his Ivy League education. He’s nothing to feel ashamed about.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

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