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Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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A-An Expensive EducationNick McDonell published his first novel, Twelve (2002), at age seventeen. An Expensive Education is the third novel by the 25-year-old Harvard graduate.

The Story: Just moments after 25-year-old U.S. intelligence agent Michael Teak makes contact with renowned freedom fighter Hatashil in a village on the Somalia-Kenya border, the village is obliterated by an airstrike. As Teak, one of the only survivors, surveys the devastation, he vows to find out who ordered the attack. Meanwhile, Harvard professor Susan Lowell has just received word that her flattering biography of Hatashil has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, practically guaranteeing her tenure. When the committee reconsiders its decision on the basis of rumors that Hatashil is no noble rebel but instead a bloodthirsty warlord with ties to al-Qaeda, Lowell must fight to defend Hatashil’s reputation—and her own.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 294 pages. $24. ISBN: 9780802118936

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Smoothly commuting from the Porcellian Club [at Harvard] to the backwaters of Africa, McDonell crafts a sophisticated potboiler with an Ivy League patina. In particular his characterization of Teak as a spy precociously ready to come in from the cold raises An Expensive Education above the common run of page-turners." Amanda Heller

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Tempered by some hilarious insider glimpses of Harvard life, An Expensive Education is terrific, a thriller noir that’s difficult to put down or forget." Rick Tetzeli

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"As a fan of Twelve, I was not surprised by McDonell’s precise and disciplined rendition of life among the young and narcissistic, but I was surprised at how artfully he wove the political plot into his college portrayal. McDonell has mastered the mechanics of genre without losing his literary hipness." Mark Lindquist

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"An Expensive Education, about a young intelligence agent from Harvard, is nothing groundbreaking—for McDonell or the spy-novel genre—but it’s smart and sexy and could be the beginning of a franchise more lucrative than literary fiction. … McDonell is stingy with the action sequences, but when they come, they’re swift and hot, showing us how Teak strikes, kills and subdues with awesome precision." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Half campus novel, half geopolitical thriller, An Expensive Education proceeds at this pace for 300 almost unerringly entertaining pages. … McDonell’s plot is wildly fanciful, but he documents the failings of his characters relentlessly and accurately—so much so that it starts to weigh the book down." Blake Wilson

Toronto Globe and Mail 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As the various players are sucked into the undertow of Hatashil’s story and caught up in the shifting loyalties and aims of the intelligence community, McDonell writes with snap and verve, in chiseled, compact sentences that eschew too much description in favour of a slick pace. … But while he has down the storytelling mechanics of a le Carré or Greene, and almost the chops, McDonell falls short when it comes to summoning the necessary quotient of moral murkiness." Christopher Frey

Critical Summary

Critics praised McDonell’s third foray into fiction as an engaging mixture of political thriller and campus novel. Even those who found minor faults with its lack of depth and lack of moral ambiguity commended McDonell’s vibrant writing and feverish, page-turning pace. Though the plot isn’t terribly innovative and the central mystery is quickly solved, Teak’s disarming idealism and sulky soul searching—"more Holden Caulfield than James Bond" (New York Times Book Review)—propel the story forward and give it charm. Critics also appreciated McDonell’s caustic behind-the-scenes tour of his alma mater and his biting descriptions of its privileged elite. Compared to Graham Greene and John le Carré for his storytelling skills, McDonell has proved that the third time is the charm.

Also by the Author

Twelve (2002): According to Blake Wilson from the New York Times Book Review, McDonell’s "terrific first novel" is "a scathing portrait of drug-addled New York prep schoolers that [he] burned through in a single evening." Compared to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, this dramatic debut follows a group of wealthy Manhattan teenagers as they skip from party to party during winter vacation.