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New novel pays homage to ‘Lolita’

By corinne white
Published on Wednesday, November 4, 2009
A Nabokovian “Gossip Girl” that is refreshingly smart in how it is less about the labels and more about the lust exhibited by students and teachers, Joshua Gaylord’s debut novel “Hummingbirds,” which was released on Oct. 6, chronicles the “glowing daughters of the social elite” at Carmine-Casey, an all-girls school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
The novel centers on two sets of rivaling characters. Leo Binhammer, the beloved veteran English teacher, meets his match in Ted Hughes, the new English teacher whose charisma and intelligence threatens Binhammer’s status as a student favorite. Among the students, the flirtatious, carefree queen bee Dixie Doyle contrasts wonderfully with introverted, observant and intelligent teacher’s pet Liz Warren.
The plot hinges on a secret, years-ago affair between Hughes and Binhammer’s wife.
Although the book is set in New York City, “Hummingbirds” is not driven by its environment. Gaylord rarely launches into self-indulgent descriptions of the city and the characters’ lavish apartments, creating evocative characterizations instead: girls “who squirm in their seats and always seem to be trying to get out of their clothes,” thoughts of “Dixie’s fingernails, which seem to be painted with purple glitter” and the “tiny glistening hairs” of a spot she missed while shaving her legs cross Binhammer’s married mind.
“Hummingbirds” may just seem like another novel that capitalizes on America’s voracious literary appetite for both sex and the lives of the wealthiest of the wealthy. And although the more smutty elements of the novel certainly do help engage interest, it is really about more than the sexual escapades of teachers and students.
It’s evident throughout the novel that Gaylord is a teacher and professor of English himself — references to the classics abound, and their connections to “Hummingbirds” are subtly weaved into the plot. The novel’s frothy fun is tempered by solid writing and intellectual authority.
The salient literary reference is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” The object of middle-aged Binhammer’s affection, little Dixie Doyle, wears her hair in “ironic pigtails” and sucks perpetually on a lollipop, evoking images of Sue Lyon on the movie poster of “Lolita” (1962).
The blatant “Lolita” connection is a brave and potentially risky choice for Gaylord, but “Hummingbirds” does an adequate job capturing the reality of modern-day May-September romances. It is safe to read the updated “Lolita” reference as an homage to Nabokov.
There are male authors who write such believable female characters and conversations that you know they must have some female friend informing the editing process. Gaylord writes about female friendships and rivalries, but also manages to capture the little things in female-to-female conversation that fly over most guys’ heads. What’s even more impressive about Gaylord’s female insights is that they are mostly about teenaged females, an even more elusive breed.
Gaylord writes with a confidence not usually found in a debut novel. He does falls prey to verbosity, as he peppers his text with similes and metaphors that occasionally are excessive or cliched.
He also struggles with creating romantic magic. If you are a teenage girl looking for something to make your heart melt, “Hummingbirds” is not for you.
The novel does, however, appeal to a lot of different audiences for a lot of different reasons. Not especially memorable, “Hummingbirds” entertains with an intellectual edge that will surely satisfy the educated reader wanting some fun.
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