Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing (2011)

Set in an international high school in Paris, YOU DESERVE NOTHING is told in three voices: that of Will, a charismatic young teacher who brings ideas alive in the classroom in a way that profoundly affects his students; Gilad, one of Will’s students who has grown up behind compound walls in places like Dakar and Dubai, and for whom Paris and Will’s senior seminar are the first heady tastes of freedom; and Marie, the beautiful, vulnerable senior. 

You Deserve Nothing was certainly one of the most entertaining reads this year. It offers an interesting mix of alternating and very realistic sounding voices, a Parisian setting and a wide range of themes.

The story is told by three people, Will, a charismatic teacher at an international school in Paris, Gilad, one of his students and Marie, a younger student who goes to another class. Will teaches literature in a very unorthodox way, challenging his students to think for themselves and provoking them as well. There are no taboo topics in his courses, religion, ethics, philosophy, they are equally discussed. Not every student feels comfortable to be challenged like this and while some admire Will as if he was a pop star, others resent him.

Those three voices tell the story four years after it has taken place. We see what happened from three different angles and point of views. I really liked those voices, they sounded authentic, very different from each other.

Since they tell the story four years after it occurred, we know from the beginning that something bad must have happened and we watch the story unfold slowly.

In the beginning we are amazed by Will and his unique teaching style. But after a while he does sound like a self-help book. In one class he teaches them about fear and his slogan is “Feel the fear and do it anyway” which is the title of a bestselling self help book by Susan Jeffers. There are many such instances. At first he sounds profound in his analysis of Sartre and Camus but when he tells his students to trust their feelings and follow their dreams, his concepts start to unravel.

Different incidents slowly show us another side of Will, a side that he would probably rather hide but funnily enough, he doesn’t really try to go on pretending. He seems a bit tired and the things he left in his past and which he tried to forget are resurfacing with force.

It’s not difficult to imagine what causes the downfall but I’m not going to reveal it.

I liked a lot of things in this book. It’s quite suspenseful and the characters are captivating and even more than that I liked the story and the themes. I always feel that school, teachers and teaching are some of the most fascinating topics and certainly topics we can all relate to. We have all gone or go to school and some of us have been or are teachers. We know both sides. The importance and influence, I would even say the power, that teachers have is almost frightening. Being a charismatic teacher can be dangerous.

The question of how far a teacher can and should go, is one of the core questions, another one being the discrepancy between theory and practice. Will knows how influential he is, yet he isn’t fully aware of his responsibility to be who he pretends to be. It’s a catastrophe for his students to find out that a lot of what he preaches may just be empty words.

I read about this book first on Guy’s blog (here is his review) and was already very interested in reading it. Some weeks later Jackie reviewed it as well (here is her review). It even made her best of 2011 and will also make mine. Jackie compared the book to Notes on a Scandal (and two other novels that I have not read) which is very accurate.

After having finished the book, I returned to Jackie’s blog and saw that someone had left an intriguing comment and a link to an article about Maksik. It seems as if Maksik’s novel was based on his own story. I’m not sure what to think now but while I was reading the book, I sympathized a lot with Will.

29 thoughts on “Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing (2011)

  1. Glad you liked it Caroline, and since you haven’t read Notes on a Scandal yet (referred to in the post), I’d highly recommend it. The book is much better than the film version.

    I know a couple of people who didn’t want to read this as it dealt with the student-teacher taboo, but things aren’t that simple in the book–especially when we hear the voice of Marie.

    • Oops, I wrote an unclear sentence. I did read Notes on a Scandal, I think it’s great. Jackie mentions two other books that I can’t remember and I haven’t read those.
      Maybe you will think me very odd but I didn’t think what he did was all that bad. I know it’s not allowed, yeah well… I think it was bad that he didn’t live up to his students expectations or that theory and practice were so far apart. I see him in a different light after having read the article (if it is true). It is easy to condemn.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! This looks like a very interesting book. Especially the three-person narration seems to be quite interesting. In some ways, this book also reminds me of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ – it also has a charismatic teacher, very intelligent students and a dark secret – the story is told by a narrator who is one of the students. Have you read this book?

    • Thanks, Vishy, I have read it and must honestly say, The Secret History is in another league, I really enjoyed reading Maksik but Donna Tart is much better and more complex. Still, I liked it a lot. I liked that it was told by three people, as it was very well done and I loved the setting, Paris, it is well rendered too, not too cliched at all. And it is also thought-provoing. Donna Tart writes on a larger scale though.

  3. I was very interested to read your review as I’ve seen a couple of this book – Jackie’s and I think Teresa reviewed it at Shelf Life. It sounded most intriguing to me, having been a teacher for most of my life, and I loved Notes on a Scandal. I can see I will have to read this one!

  4. I had this book in my hand but couldn’t decide whether to read it or not and then I heard mixed responses to the book due to the fact the author had based it on a true experience. I’m very intrigued however, as I also read and loved Notes on a Scandal, so maybe I’ll add this to my list after all.

    • I think you have to forget that he may or may not have based it on his own story if you read it. We will never really know which part is true. It could still be that it was exactly the way it is rendered in the book. I liked it a lot for many reasons. I loved Notes on a Scandal too. Guy’s review is completely differeent from mine and Jackie’s, maybe you could have a look. He liked it quite a bit as well. I think you would like it.

    • Thanks, Tony, I read the review a while back and must say I think it isn’t exactly justified. It’s Will who is stealing, I felt not, so much Maksik but now that it seems Maksik is Will… L’étranger and this novel have not that much in common and the rest is part of the topic, a teacher who abuses his charisma and exploits theories that are not even his.

  5. I am here from Vishy’s blog (after reading the comment that you liked my story about the photographs of the bridges. And I only left that ‘story’ in one sentence).

    You have such a lovely blog, beginning from the title and going on to the interesting books you read/challenges in which you participate. I’ve added you to my list of fellow bibliophiles, and I look forward to sharing books with you in 2012.

    • Thanks so much for visiting and your kind words… You know what is really funny, after I read your comment, I dashed over to your blog and immediately added it to my google reader. I’m looking forward to read and explore it.

  6. It sounds fascinating. Having been a teacher, I’m drawn to books about the microcosmic world of the classroom. I skipped over and read Jackie’s review as well. Definitely adding it to my TBR list.

  7. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  8. ow…this sounds like a fun book. It reminds me of Miyuki Miyabe’s book, the story took place in interogation room. The crime unfold through the interview. Of course the story is totally different with this.

    I am really curious with this one…hope I can find it. Great review, Caroline.

    • Thanks, Novia. It should be interesting for you as you are a teacher. It does touch on a lot of subjetcs that are important. How far can a teacher go? Can he/she become a friend of their pupils? Are they allowed to do counseling?

      • Books about teacher are always interesting, it gives insight to my perspective as a teacher.
        Aha!! for me, being a friend of my pupils comes naturally. I never fake myself in front of my students.

        • There are many different points of view and it will also vary from one society to the other. I realized meanwhile that this book has created a lot of controversy. The discussion on the link that Jackie added is quite interesting. I still liked it, no matter what.

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