In Elizabeth Percer’s An Uncommon Education, readers are introduced to nine-year-old Naomi Feinstein when she and her father visit Rose and Joe Kennedy’s old home in Brookline, Massachusetts. Though accustomed to living with her mother’s melancholy silences and fits of depression, Naomi’s life is instantly transformed into an existence ruled by fear of loss when her father suffers a heart attack during one of their visits to the Kennedy home, and her mother becomes increasingly distant. Naomi’s trepidations are further exacerbated when she meets and loses Teddy, a young neighborhood friend whom she deeply loves. Percer’s debut novel follows Naomi’s quest to channel her considerable intellect into preparation for Wellesley and a career finding a cure for the weakness of her father’s heart, all while surviving adolescence with her remaining loved ones intact.
An Uncommon Education is not without flaws, the beginning is beautifully written but lacks focus and it is very slow to start. The amount of detail given to not only Naomi’s backstory, but that of her mother and father, were overwhelming and gave few clues on how the story would progress. It makes for restless and jerky reading, but the beauty of Percer’s observations and the strong characterizations kept me checking back in with the book and the characters until, halfway through, it gained some momentum. One of the strongest elements of the novel is its exploration of friendship with all the attendant worries inherent in maintaining the balance of the relationship. When do you do more, or less? Are you betraying a confidence or overstepping a boundary? When should you have shared and cared more, or less? The ache of these dilemmas and are beautifully nuanced and portrayed, especially in Naomi’s relationships with Teddy and Jun, and finally with her mother.
Naomi achieves her dream of attending Wellesley and while she finds that neither it, nor the path that she imagined she would take, is as it seems, the second half of the novel is more tightly knit and retroactively strengthens the first half. An Uncommon Education is ultimately Naomi’s rich family history and how that history, her experiences, and what she hopes to avoid, shapes her friendships, choices and the course of her life. The culmination of Naomi’s story could be palpably traced through from Naomi’s childhood experiences and Percer does an excellent job of making the plight of her characters felt. I often wanted to reach into the book to advise Naomi, her friends, and her well-intentioned parents. Despite being slow to launch, Elizabeth Percer has written a beautiful coming of age story that can be read on many levels, and more than once. Recommended.