When I opened M. T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing and read the first pages, I wasn't planning to stick with this story of a strangely grown-up-sounding boy surrounded by scholars. They drill him in Greek and Latin and violin lessons. They weigh everything he consumes, then weigh again when he excretes. They exact capricious punishments when he answers a question wrong.
But young Octavian grew on me. He and his mother were captured in Africa. She was royalty. He has no memory of the old continent. And now they are essentially lab rats at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Well, privileged lab rats. When the college throws a soiree, the mother acts the hostess. She's royalty, after all, a shimmering beauty with whom every man would like to converse.
When the benefactor of the institute dies, a rich young lord from England arrives to examine the premises with a mind to sponsoring these scholars. He strikes up a flirtation with Octavian's mother and makes her an offer--with a boatload of catches.
This is Boston, just before the American Revolution. The colonists' rumble with discontent. Oh, and fear, too. They suspect the British may foment a slaves' uprising, whence masters' throats will be slit as they sleep soundly in their beds.
So, no more Greek and Latin for Octavian. He might get too smart.
Then there is the Pox Party. Whether for the cause of pure science, or to keep war and soldiers at arms' length, the scientists sequester themselves with a few friends (and their slaves), infect them with a "mild" strain of smallpox, promising to nurse them through it with every modern remedy at their disposal. This, we are told, is far preferable to getting one's smallpox epidemic-style. They can all play whist and stage evening music salons while they break out in pustules together.
I won't give away any more.
Anyway, for a book that held all the promise of a financial statement, the story sure picked up.
Neither did it hurt to read it while I sat on a fine bench in the town square of one of those charming suburbs that I love so much. The "village" was having sidewalk sales that day and the streets were full of slim ladies in their yoga pants, shopping bags swinging from their arms as they tried on shirts, or strode past the granite walls of the bank building. Children played in decorative tufts of prairie grass. Stroller wheels clattered on the sidewalk bricks. A couple commuter trains clanged by. And cicadas sang.
Every town should be like this. We especially need a version where we don't all have to spend a million or so to buy a house there.
Now that I'm back to ordinary life, operating the ByeByeNesquik College of Recipe Experimentation, it's looks like the lab rats are in for a week of sandwiches. The fanciest one is BROCCOLI HAM RING.