the devil and webster jean hanff korelitz

THE DEVIL AND WEBSTER by Jean Hanff Korelitz [Book Review]

I received this book for review consideration from the publisher, via Shelf Awareness for Readers. All opinions are my own.

The Devil and Webster
Written by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Published by Grand Central Publishing on March 21st 2017
ISBN: 9781455592388
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Contemporary Women, Family Life
Pages: 368
Format: ARC
Source: publisher, via Shelf Awareness for Readers

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From the New York Times bestselling author of You Should Have Known and Admission, a twisty new novel about a college president, a baffling student protest, and some of the most hot-button issues on today's college campuses.

Naomi Roth is the first female president of Webster College, a once conservative school now known for producing fired-up, progressive graduates. So Naomi isn't surprised or unduly alarmed when Webster students begin the fall semester with an outdoor encampment around "The Stump"-a traditional campus gathering place for generations of student activists-to protest a popular professor's denial of tenure. A former student radical herself, Naomi admires the protestors' passion, especially when her own daughter, Hannah, joins their ranks.

Then Omar Khayal, a charismatic Palestinian student with a devastating personal history, emerges as the group's leader, and the demonstration begins to consume Naomi's life, destabilizing Webster College from the inside out. As the crisis slips beyond her control, Naomi must take increasingly desperate measures to protect her friends, colleagues, and family from an unknowable adversary.

Touching on some of the most topical and controversial concerns at the heart of our society, this riveting novel examines the fragility that lies behind who we think we are-and what we think we believe.

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (April 14, 2017). It was my last review there after nearly six years as a contributor. I’m glad to have ended with a book I really enjoyed.

THE DEVIL AND WEBSTER and a School Under Siege

In The Devil and Webster, Jean Hanff Korelitz chronicles a year in the life of a small college destabilized by a long-running student protest. 

Naomi Roth’s handling of a residence-hall protest involving a transgender student was her gateway into the presidency of Webster College, a highly-competitive liberal-arts school in western Massachusetts. Her tenure has been mostly peaceful ever since, but Naomi respects protest among Webster’s undergraduates. She was once a campus activist herself, after all.

Naomi’s unfazed when a group of students–including her daughter–assembles on the quad to protest a popular professor’s dismissal from the college. She invites them to meet with her to air their grievances. When she was in their place, a hearing with the college president was the first thing student protestors wanted. She assumes it still is, but student protest doesn’t work like it did during Naomi’s days at Cornell.

Pushing Social and Political Buttons

Webster’s students would rather voice their complaints publicly via social media than air them privately to the college president. The college’s administration defends the confidentiality of tenure decisions. The protesters read sinister motives into their lack of transparency.

The students refuse to believe that the professor’s dismissal was not racially motivated. Webster’s conservative history might support that perspective, but Naomi rejects it. She knows the true reasons, but she also truly believes that her college has evolved into a far more enlightened, truly liberal place in recent decades. As the protests drag on across the academic year, she’ll have many opportunities to re-evaluate those beliefs.

Korelitz’s writing has almost an old-fashioned formality that fits the academic setting of The Devil and Webster. The story she tells is very much of the moment, however. Webster College is a small world where hot-button issues–representation, discrimination, and free speech, among others–loom large. The political climate at the time of this novel’s publication makes it feel remarkably timely.


THE DEVIL AND WEBSTER: Peek Inside the Book

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  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    For some reason, I thought this book was about Daniel Webster. Thanks for setting me straight. It sounds very relevant and like something I’d enjoy.

    • I think the title may be a little overly clever and potentially misleading for the very reason you mention, but it’s totally worth getting past that. It’s a very timely and smart novel.

  • This sounds timely and familiar. My small Connecticut liberal arts college had shanty towns to protest South African investments and Apartheid (the college divested). I cannot imagine if we’d had social media!

  • Lisa Sheppard

    I’m with Kathy, thinking this was about Daniel Webster. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing but this definitely sounds like something I’d like to pick up soon.