Elspeth Flowers is a career-fixated, libidinous, and conniving Dean of a state college's Law School. She's been working for years to put herself and her school into the prime position to launch themselves into national prominence. The School is on the verge of breaking into the Top 5 of U.S. News & World Report's ranking of Law Schools -- a first for any state school. When that happens, the prospects for the trailblazing leader that got them there are so bright they'd inspire a song by Timbuk3. While Elspeth wants the success for the School, what she wants more than that are for her post-academia plans for herself to come to fruition. But on the cusp of her anticipated victory there are a few things that stand in her way:
- Cuckolded Assistant Dean Jimmy James Fleenor who keeps (initially inadvertently) blocking her cunning plans.
- An Enterprising Mail Room clerk, Wendall Ward, who just might be the most influential person we meet in these pages -- definitely the most on-the-ball Mail Room clerk since Brantley Foster.
- A federal investigation into the business practices of the school's biggest donor.
- A handful of secrets that are enough to get the accreditation committee to look long and hard at everything around the school.
Did I forget to mention that the ABA's Accreditation Committee shows up days before everything is going to fall into place for Elspeth? Not just that, but thanks to circumstances and Jimmy James' fumbling machinations, the committee is full of people who aren't going to march to the beat of Elspeth's drum or respond to her wiles. Their arrival shows that Elspeth's best laid plans may look impressive (especially to her), but in reality are merely a tower of Jenga blocks threatening to topple. The question is: can she keep things standing long enough to get her Top 5 ranking and seize the brass ring -- or will she find herself standing in a pile of rubble?
I like to think I learned a lot about the state of legal education today from these pages -- even if the details are exaggerated for the purposes of satire there's enough truth at the heart of them to educate the reader. Competition can drive the most cut-throat amongst us to extremes -- and when the rewards for winners are what they can be in this area of academia, there's a lot of incentive for people to get very competitive.
This is Goldstein's fifth novel (I believe), and it looks like this is the first that isn't a straightforward legal thriller. The experience he gained from those other novels probably served him well as he attempts to stop into another, and far trickier, genre. His characters are well-developed and well-used, his pacing is good, and he reveals plot complication after plot complication like a pro. He doesn't go for cheap laughs and doesn't demean the targets of his satire -- nor does he pull his punches. It's not a laugh-out-loud funny book, but it's amusing and he'll elicit more than the occasional grin as you read it.
One thing I've noticed about satirical novels is that endings are the hardest part -- I've stopped looking for strong endings in satirical novels, I just hope for not terrible endings. Plots just tend to get away from the authors -- like Soap Box Derby cars with cheap brakes on steep hills. Things in Legal Asylum threatened to get away from Goldstein, but he largely managed a satisfactory ending. I'm not 100% convinced it wasn't more by authorial fiat than by being true to the characters (particularly Elspeth), but it was close enough that I could swallow that last chapter without much difficulty.
Do I think I'd find this more amusing if I was in the legal profession, had some experience with Law School, or was closer to my time in higher education in general? You bet. Is all of the humor lost on me because none of the above apply? Nope -- and the same is likely for other readers. This is a recommended read for those who like smart books -- particularly those about smart people who don't always act like they are. Strong writing, satire that's on-target without being mean, good characters and an ending that's pretty satisfying -- it's hard to ask for more.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the author's publicist in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.