By page three of Eileen Pollack’s The Professor of Immortality (Delphinium Books), we have already learned that our protagonist, a 54-year-old professor of a questionable line of study at a local college, is a grieving widow of eight years, her adult son has been missing for seven months, and a Match.com date slipped out the back door of a restaurant without saying goodbye (and without paying the bill).
The trifecta of nightmares for any middle-aged woman.
She’s soldiering on, though, and chapter titles keep us informed of what she’s doing. First the mundane. She “…Gets Out of Bed (Chapter 1). She “…Drags Herself to Work” (Chapter 2). She “…Teaches a Class.” But things start to get a little knotty at “…Regrets Something She Failed To Do” and “…Opens a Package She Knows She Shouldn’t.”
It’s a clever literary trick which made it hard to put the book down.
Professor Maxine Sayers has more on her plate than dealing with grief, worry, and loneliness. Her aging, addled mother is in a nursing home; Maxine goes to feed her and keep her company, get her to her hair appointments, and remind her what time it is. Politics at work are dicey; she fears her department will lose its funding. A fellow professor is making gentle, but unwanted, romantic advances. Lastly, reading the newspaper accounts of bombs arriving in certain people’s mail has begun to light up a dark recess of her mind.
This is a work of fiction, but Pollack relies heavily on the publicized accounts of a domestic terrorist who, between 1978 and 1995, sent bombs in the mail, targeting people involved in promoting technology. He killed three and injured 23 more. Using this as a platform, Pollack weaves an intricate story of nearly heartbreaking gravity set against a possibly dystopian future looming in front of her characters.
What’s lovely about the book is its faithfulness to real life. While marveling at the amount of turmoil in Professor Sayers’ life, I had to remind myself that real life is not all Facebook and Instagram, that many of us are crouching under circumstances much like hers, that newspaper accounts of tragedy and crime happen to real people. I was involved in the professor’s life. I cared about her. For an author to create a character that her readers care deeply about is a fine talent indeed.
As Professor Sayers picks through the clues to connect her missing son with the bombs in the mail, I was in as much denial as she was. Each tiny link brought new and heinous possibilities, but Pollack was careful not to let the mystery take over the story. There’s a sweet and secret love story, an awkward coming-of-age, financial entanglements and a lawsuit, someone dies, a baby is born – all told in particularly fresh prose which makes The Professor of Immortality an easy and definitely a worthwhile read.
The Professor of Immortality is now available.
About Eileen Pollack
Eileen Pollack is a writer whose novel Breaking and Entering, about the deep divisions between blue and red America, was named a 2012 New York Times Editor’s Choice selection.
She also is the author of Paradise, New York, a novel, and two collections of short fiction, In the Mouth and The Rabbi in the Attic, as well as a work of creative nonfiction called Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull (made into a major motion picture starring Jessica Chastain) and two innovative textbooks, Creative Nonfiction and Creative Composition.
She teaches on the faculty of the Helen Zell MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan.