See Jane Read Welcome to the dark side of literary academia

First Posted: 4/21/2014

Instead of titling her first novel, “Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z,” Debra Weinstein might have called it “Mama, don’t let your baby grow up to be a personal assistant,” since this scathing and often very funny satire of the poetry establishment centers on yet another relationship between a famous woman and her hapless handmaiden.

Much like “The Devil Wears Prada,” Weinstein’s book feels like a true story thinly disguised as fiction. A poet herself, the author has the street cred to write hilariously about the rarefied atmosphere of professional poets, and also insightfully about poetry itself. If you’re thinking that “Apprentice” will only be of interest to readers familiar with the dog-eat-dog world of literary academia, guess again. Anyone who has ever had an ogre for a boss will identify with young Annabelle Goldsmith’s experiences in this coming-of-age story of lost innocence.

Set in the mid-1980s, when people still used dial telephones and typewriters, much of the action takes place at a famous university that can only be NYU, to which Annabelle has transferred after a stint at a community college on Long Island. Because she has been awarded an assistantship, along with a full scholarship to study poetry, she lands the coveted work-study job of assisting celebrity poet Elizabeth Bovardine, better known as “the flower poet, Z” due to her erotic poems about flowers. Most assistantships consist of nothing more than typing, filing, and spending hours at the copying machine, but Z asks Annabelle to be her personal assistant, working for her not only at the university, but also out of Z’s East Side penthouse apartment.

As such, Annabelle willingly becomes Z’s slave, charged with replenishing the stock of hand towels Z keeps on hand for guests, whipping up finger food and ordering wine for Z’s weekly literary salons, and becoming Z’s personal shopper. Z’s instructions in the latter category had me rolling my eyes and guffawing.

“Annabelle, I need black ink for my fountain pen. I want the blackest ink you can find. Jet black, not midnight black, not shoeshine black.”

Annabelle is only too happy to comply, especially when Z raises the stakes by suggesting that Annabelle is actually her apprentice, but as Annabelle quickly learns, her so-called apprenticeship involves much more than proofreading, conducting research and shopping for ink and hand towels. Z expects Annabelle to protect her privacy, run interference for her with her husband, Lars, and daughter, Claire, so she can write, and above all, to be selfless, or as Z says, to be “wallpaper.” Later, she will ask Annabelle to help her conceal an adulterous relationship (and to buy silk boxer shorts for her lover), and worse.

We see further signs of Annabelle’s willingness to be exploited in her relationship with Harry Banks, an older graduate student obsessed with James Joyce. Harry’s a weirdo who talks Annabelle into dressing like Joyce’s wife, Nora and reciting lines from Nora’s letters when they make love. Secretly, Harry is using her as fodder for his awful novel, but Annabelle is so caught up in her sexual awakening that she misses the tell-tale signs, just as she fails to observe, for far too long, that her idol, Z, has feet more like quicksand than like clay.

Unlike Annabelle, who is impressively well-read and can quote many poems by heart, we quickly realize that Z appears to know almost nothing about the works of poets with whom even most high school students would be familiar. Z covers her ignorance by saying “remind me” when people mention poems by Emily Dickinson or Auden. Eventually, Annabelle gets the picture, but what she doesn’t realize is that Z is so worried about anyone who might be competition that she will do anything to ruin their careers. In a passive aggressive way, Z even tries to stymie Annabelle’s progress as a poet, never quite managing to get around to reading Annabelle’s latest poem and discouraging her from submitting poems for publication in literary magazines.

Why would an intelligent, well-read, gifted, and in some ways very confident, young woman like Annabelle enthusiastically agree to be used so badly? Well for one thing, she has an obliging nature and appears almost to enjoy being exploited. For another, this seeming intimacy with Z is Annabelle’s dream come true: she hopes to sit at the feet of her famous mentor and learn to be just like her, and to discover the answer to the question that plagues her throughout the novel: “What is poetry?” And finally, although Z uses Annabelle unmercifully, she also throws bones her way, helping her gain admission into a select graduate course, find a rent-controlled apartment, and even paying her extra to observe and write imaginative descriptions of flowers that Z needs in order to finish her new book of poems. I won’t spoil the fun by revealing Z’s motives behind all this helpfulness, but trust me, they’re just as self-serving as you might expect.

Although the author doesn’t spend much time developing her cast of fascinating supporting players, I’m inclined to forgive her. She gives us just enough information about these characters to let us draw our own conclusions. Not only that, but she gives us such wonderfully painted scenes that we have to believe in the bizarre world she creates. So take a plunge into the dark underbelly of dueling poets and enjoy the revenge of the “Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z.”

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