Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Doubleday, 2014; 192 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Normally a tagline on the inside of the book jacket promising to put “the pissed back into epistolary" would raise some red flags for cheesy, overly self-conscious writing, but Dear Committee Members is anything but. Author Julie Schumacher’s novel, told entirely through letters of recommendation over the course of a school year, delivers an acerbic, often uproarious comic novel that manages to find big laughs in its satire and surprising poignancy in the closing passages.
Dear Committee Members follows Jason Fitger, a creative writing and English professor at Payne University, and the sea of recommendations requests. Jason seems to write every kind of letter—for graduate programs, law school, writer retreats, and jobs at a paintball range. Jason can’t help himself from letting his sarcasm and ire percolate into his words, expressing to anyone who will read his work many blunt feelings about the people he encounters. Letters at the behest of students might tip over into a discussion of his failed marriage or a confession that he’d never met a student before getting asked to write a letter. Because the reader only ever gets to read Jason’s letters, we never find out how his bon mots are received.
Part of what makes Dear Committee Members such a pleasure to read (beyond the brisk nature of the novel) is the high comic tone of the book. Schumacher pulls off a high-wire act of absurdity that always feel like it might teeter over the edge into farce, but manages to find emotional truth in Jason’s letters, his only apparent connection to the outside world. He discusses with strangers and former friends about what he lost in the divorce, offering insight into his rocky life leading up to this school year. But his desperate attempts to find some path for a struggling former student end up offering a rich emotional payoff in both an unexpected and profound way. Schumacher brings a lot of imagination into the way that writing—even that which we craft in the service of others—offers compelling narrative possibilities.