Caroline Zancan’s We Wish You Luck is not the first novel set at a writing program, but she tells a fresh story nonetheless. For one, the book takes place at a low-residency writing program, where students only stay on campus for a week or two each semester, and do the rest of their work remotely with a faculty advisor. Zancan is a graduate of such a program, and it shows: she expertly captures the participants, their experiences, and the various attitudes stereotypically (and often accurately) found in an MFA program. But she also deftly paints a picture of how, in the wrong hands, workshops can go drastically wrong, criticism can get brutally personal, and what seems like shop talk can cut much deeper, with lasting effects.
The reader knows from the beginning that something has happened in the Fielding MFA program, but it’s not quite clear what. The first-person plural POV is a unique choice, but it works in this novel. Although the writing cohort is telling the story, the tale centers on a threesome within the program – Hannah, Leslie, and Jimmy – and a best-selling author, Simone, who is a visiting professor. After a disastrous workshop in which Simone oversteps boundaries, the threesome will never be the same, much less the writing program or Simone’s career. What follows is a classic tale of revenge and redemption, as well as love and friendship, and success and ambition.
Zancan adeptly describes the naked wanting, aspirations, and work that are part of the MFA experience, but she also shows how devastating cruelty or even mere criticism can be depending on how it is received and the recipient’s mindset. The novel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and despite their realistic traits, Zancan avoids falling into typical tropes of writing students. Those who have attended an MFA program will enjoy the little Easter eggs she throws in, like debates about genre or commercialism, or the longing for MacDowell fellowships and digs about Pushcarts. But even readers unfamiliar with writing programs will enjoy the main characters and their classmates.
As the novel unfolds, it’s like a Russian nesting doll: the most basic layer merely tells you what happened, but as you get further into the story, you learn more, and offshoots of the original event spiral out into their own explosions, causing collateral damage that is only apparent later on. This makes for a unique story, one with ongoing reverberations throughout. It is a testament to Zancan’s writing that this mode of storytelling works and that, as the story unfurls, We Wish You Luck holds the reader’s interest throughout the novel.
We Wish You Luck is out January 14, 2020.
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