Still in Love

PRAISE (Read all of the advance reviews on the NEWS page)

Downing’s witty follow-up to Perfect Agreement satisfyingly transports readers. . .  Downing poignantly illustrates the dynamics of the college classroom as well as its potential for lasting lessons, making for a resonant campus novel.--Publishers Weekly

Brilliantly sly and ferociously precise. Still in Love is a joy.--Jennifer Dubois, author of Cartwheel and A Partial History of Lost Causes

This novel is a treasure--a subtle, exquisite love letter to teaching, students, and the sacred space of the classroom.--Alexandra Zapruder, author of Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film

By means both wry and warm, Michael Downing elucidates the meaning of the classroom. Still in Love reminds me why he was one of my favorite professors ever.--Melissa Broder, author of The Pisces and So Sad Today

Still in Love is a rare occurrence in the book world, a lyrical and compassionate novel that is whip-smart and laugh-out-loud funny.  Anyone who teaches anything should read this. (And for those in the business, the writing exercises included here are the best I’ve ever found.) But so should anyone who cares about young people, and learning, and love.--Michelle Blake, creative-writing professor and author of the acclaimed Lily Connor mysteries

OVERVIEW:  The story of Still in Love

What could possibly be more impractical, more unwarranted, more unnecessary than a Creative Writing course? Why would any student hoping to acquire the skills and knowledge valued by potential employers squander fifteen weeks writing made-up stories? How can a parent be expected to pay as much for a semester of Creative Writing as Organic Chemistry or Accounting? Why should any school or university continue to fund these workshops for a dozen students instead of more 500-seat lecture classes or unlimited-enrollment online courses?

Still in Love is the story of one semester in a Creative Writing classroom and, I hope, a timely and compelling reminder of why we desperately need classrooms, especially those small, sealed-off-from-the-world sanctuaries that serve no purpose—except the Platonic Ideal of education.

This is no standard story of trial and triumph. This is the story of a brief interlude in the lives of twelve talented and ambitious undergraduates as they are forced to recognize their limits, to accept those limits, and, finally, to learn to love their limits.

And every reader is invited to enroll in this unlikely and unnerving and Creative Writing class. The arena for almost all the action is the classroom, and the novel is an opportunity for readers to take up the challenge of responding to original, engaging writing exercises, harsh criticism, and contrarian advice.

This is your chance to see how you would fare as a student at New England’s highly rated Hellman College.

At the front of this classroom is Mark Sternum, the veteran teacher who found himself at the center of a national controversy after he flunked an African-American student on a basic-skills test in my novel Perfect Agreement. Twenty years older, separated for six months from his longtime lover, this time Mark is saddled with an assignment to critique higher education at private colleges. And the loopy politics of the liberal arts. And he is desperate to duck the overtures of double-dealing deans above him and disgruntled adjunct faculty below him.

Mark Sternum has a simple, singular ambition every day he is on campus—to close the classroom door and leave the world behind. Which he does—until he runs into the Professor, the contentious tenured faculty member with whom Mark has co-taught Creative Writing workshop for ten years.

The Professor is a formidable foe—a merciless critic of the stories Mark writes to fulfill the assignments they give to students; an imperious purveyor of rules and regulations that are reliably at odds with Mark’s attempts to cultivate an atmosphere of ease and experimentation; and, unlike Mark, he has absolutely no interest whatsoever in the lives of their students outside the classroom.

It is the spectacle of Mark’s complicated wrestling-match of a relationship with the Professor that I hope provides a chance for students—and for all readers—to come to see what an amazing arena the classroom can be.

Read More

The Chapel

Overview

Recently widowed, unhappily stuck on a pricey whiplash tour of Italy, Elizabeth Berman comes face to face with the first documented painting of a teardrop in human history, and in the presence of that tearful mother, and the arresting company of the renowned and anonymous women painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel, she wakes up to the possibility that she is not lost.

Mitchell left me everything, just as he promised. “Everything,” he liked to say during his last month on the sofa, “everything will be yours,” as if it wasn’t yet. I was left with that and two adult children who could not tolerate my sitting in my home by myself—admittedly, rather too often in a capacious pink flannel nightgown and the green cardigan Mitchell was wearing on the afternoon he died.

That’s how Elizabeth winds up on a tour better suited to her late-husband, a Dante scholar. Mitchell masterminded the itinerary as a surprise for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Itching to leave as soon as she arrives in Padua, Elizabeth’s efforts to book a ticket home are stymied by her aggressively supportive children, the ministrations of an incomprehensibly Italian hotel staff, and the prospect of forfeiting the sizable chunk of cash she shelled out for the trip. But there are consolations—arugula pizza and ancient arcades and Aperol spritzes in the piazza with her odd lot of fellow castaways.

Instead of deconstructing their disappointing former lives, they are drawn together by their longing to understand how something beautiful is made. They dive headlong into the Arena Chapel, trying to untangle Giotto himself, whose frescoes in Padua secured his reputation as the world’s greatest painter.

Michael Downing has devised a divine romantic comedy. Tracking the hopes and heartaches and hangovers of a woman with a history of disappearing, The Chapel shows us that happiness is as fragile as a fresco by Giotto.

Read More

A Narrow Time

Overview

This is the story of Anne Fossicker, a woman whose youngest daughter disappears. It began as one mother’s account of her attempts to get the right ending, the happy ending for her life story as a wife and mother of three. Then the narrator’s six-year-old daughter, Sarah, goes missing, and Anne discovers that the world is “a strange, truly remarkable place.”

And that’s when this novel turned into a genuine mystery. As I reached the midway point in writing the book, I realized that I was in the same position as Anne, the mother of the lost child. I didn’t know where Sarah was or how she had disappeared.

Read More

Breakfast with Scot

Overview

Awards:

Adapted as feature film; for news about the movie Breakfast with Scot, see below.

Honor Book, American Library Association

Selected as one of the Ten Best Gay Books of the Year by Amazon.com

Book Sense Pick

Finalist for Ferro-Grumley/Triangle Award

Adapted as the play Breakfast with Scot commissioned by the New Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco, 2004)

 

The story of Breakfast with Scot 

When I began to write this book, I intended to write a novel about nosey neighbors—something about which I actually know something, having been one myself. In my original scheme, the central characters, Sam and Ed, a chiropractor and an editor, were longtime lovers living happily by themselves, with no longings for any additions to their happy and rather handsome home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As I wrote the initial chapters, I was listening to two CDs—alternately and constantly: Chopin’s (perfect and perfectly scaled) Nocturnes and Pop Pop, the (simply perfect) Rickie Lee Jones covers of standards that run the gamut from “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” to “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan. Out of that inspiring combo, Scot popped up in my imagination—an eleven-year-old boy with a weird, slouchy way of never standing up straight. He was wearing a boa. And then, Scot basically took over the book.

For me, as I hope it does for readers, Breakfast with Scot became a joy ride into the unknown.

Read More

Mother of God

Overview

In retrospect, I see that this is a novel about a woman who wishes she were the Mother of God. When I wrote it, I was trying to understand how we live with irreconcilable longings—in this case, grace and desire.

This is a family story, and it is set in motion by the eruption something buried beneath two decades of life and lies by Sylvia and Arthur Adamski. Their youngest son, Stephen, is arrested for vandalizing a synagogue. When the local police, the Berkshire County prosecutors, and psychiatrists are frustrated by Stephen’s refusal to answer the charges, on the grounds that his kingdom is not of this world, the investigation turns to the past, and the abortive ambitions and misconceived desires that fuel Stephen’s increasingly tormented and violent bid for redemption.

Read More

Perfect Agreement

Overview

Awards:

National Bestseller

Selected as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by Amazon.com

Selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by Newsday

The story of Perfect Agreement

This is, I hope, a story about how we learn to love our lives. It is a comic novel about a man who wishes his lover, friends, and families would behave according to the reliable rules of grammar, instead of acting like exceptions.

Mark Sternum, the narrator, teaches grammar and spelling at Boston’s McClintock College—“An odd job for a college professor,” he is told, “but no one else seems to be doing it.” When he flunks an African-American student on the college’s basic skills test, she accuses him of “prejudism” and he is fired—and his case makes national headlines.

In the midst of this mess, his lover decides to move out of town, an anonymous supporter emails him daily advice, and his father, a photographer famous for his pictures of the Shaker communities that once thrived in America, turns up for a visit—most surprising, as Mark had long believed his father was dead.

Mark’s father wheedles his way into his son’s life with stories of a nineteenth-century Shaker woman, Sister Celia, and her encounters with the Negro Jesus. And he wakes up something in Mark—a longing to escape the solitude of certainty. Mark is reluctantly drawn into the maddening joy of engagement, the peculiar but enduring compensations of work, friendship, and genuine community.

Read More