Hillsdale: Greek Tragedy in America’s Heartland by Roger Rapoport
Date Read: October 2 to 19, 2019
Rating: 2 (of 5) stars
This was my choice for a somewhat loose interpretation for the October prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: a book that scares you. I do not have a ton of true horror options on my shelves, and even then I would not quite say that horror themed books really scare me. This one was the scariest I could think of, the true bottom of my to read list pile. It’s outside my normal realm, and I bought it on a whim because it was on a display of local interest books at one of my favorite bookstores. This was about 10 years ago; since then I discovered that it has the lowest average Goodreads rating of all my books. Now that’s terrifying.
I tried really hard to go into this with an open mind, but it did not take me long to figure out why the book had been poorly received. The story itself is intriguing: the president of a prestigious, historically conservative college finds himself in the midst of a scandal after the death of his daughter-in-law, shortly after she has claimed that the two had been involved in a nearly 20 year affair. To add to the drama, there are some unusual circumstances surrounding her death, which is ruled a suicide although never fully investigated. While I do not mean to advocate for the exploitation of an obviously tragic situation, I feel like this could have been made very interesting. However, the flaws heavily outweigh any intrigue in the content. This book is not well written. It reads very much like a textbook—a poorly edited textbook.
Many of the chapters feel disjointed, with tangential information that does not add anything to the story. Some of this I understand, in sharing the history of the college and the family of the college president. However, there were areas where it not only did not add to the story, but also simply did not make sense. When we learn that Lissa wanted to move the family to Colorado, do we really need several pages detailing the history of the city where she wanted to move? There were other sections that seemed to have been rearranged during editing, but never fully reviewed. For example, there were specific individuals with names included, but no explanation of who they were or how they were related to the story. In most cases, this explanation came later; sometimes several pages later. In at least one case, pointed out to me by a friend who attended the college, there is a person who is misidentified as connected to the university during that time.
Even disregarding these errors, which could have easily been resolved with a strong editor, there were pieces of this book that did not sit well with me. In some ways, there is a sense of injustice here: a woman is dead, there are questionable circumstances surrounding this, and it is never fully investigated. Rapoport seems to feel this, as he details the shortcomings of the investigation. There are even hints that perhaps Lissa’s husband, George IV, had something to do with her death, including possible motive and opportunity. However, this is quickly brushed over in favor of more details on how the scandal associated with Lissa’s death lead to the downfall of George III as the college president.
Lissa’s claim of the affair was used as evidence against George III, although it could not be substantiated. Perhaps this is unfair, but is that really the most important point of this story? What is the “Greek tragedy” referred to in the title: the death of Lissa, or the loss of George III’s job? The chapter that talks of Lissa’s death and the shortcomings of the investigation ends with a quip about George III and his new wife’s experiencing the “airline industry’s equivalent of a near-death experience” by being forced to watch the same poor movie on four long flights they took in the two days after Lissa’s death. This is not only tangential; it is disrespectful.
Unfortunately, this book did live up to the poor reviews that influenced me to continually push it down in my list of books to be read. It is also unfortunate, I suppose, that there is always more to say about books that are disliked than those that are enjoyed. I still will not quite claim that I wish I had not taken the time to read this. I do think that it is a story worth telling; I wish it had been handled better than this.
Boris’s thoughts: “Can we finally put this one away now? 1 paw.”