In Alexander Maksik’s debut novel, Will Silver teaches literature in an English-speaking high school in Paris. His students come from all over: the children of striving Parisian families, cosmopolitan expat American kids, a sprinkling of Middle Eastern teens. Will is the kind of teacher students love and administrators scold, a familiar hero in the annals of pedagogical fiction; yet Maksik avoids most of the clichés in sketching Will. One trope holds true (he’s great-looking, according to the girls at school) but the character is also beset by self-doubt, crankiness, and a vexing passivity. His reckless choice to become sexually involved with a student puts his job in jeopardy, but this feels like just another stop on a trail of self-sabotage.
If Will is a bit of a cipher, his students are vividly drawn: young people ping-ponging between naïveté and self-awareness, yearning for adulthood but disgusted by the adults in their lives. Their interactions in the classroom are intense; readers who recall grappling with “Hamlet’’ or Camus for the first time will remember the high stakes. As they struggle with what they can and can’t expect from Will, their need - both for guidance and to reject it - is heartbreaking. Maksik takes seriously both the moral questions Will’s students grapple with and the sensual education they’re pursuing outside the classroom, making this a smart, sexy read indeed.