(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Greek myth, Icarus’s exuberantly beating wings hurl him toward the sun, where they melt, and he plunges to his death in the sea. The Icarian figure adorning the cover of Falling in Place suggests the downside of youthful aspiration; the major characters in Falling in Place do not take control of their lives. Instead, they seem to fall numbly into place through indirection.

Of all the major characters in the novel, only Cynthia Forrest seems fully aware of how disappointing she finds her own life. From her standpoint, she is wasting a very good mind trying to teach summer-school students about literature. Perhaps ironically, her students dub her “Lost-in-the-Forrest”; from their standpoint, the name is apt. Cynthia does not usually concern herself with students as individuals, and she is using an anthology of excerpts, so the literature may seem unreal and the students’ personal experience irrelevant. The students’ welfare does not seem to be a concern for Cynthia. She becomes involved with one student, Mary, only when Mary’s father, John Knapp, expresses concern about Mary’s summer-school work and makes a date to talk to her teacher.

The conference between parent and teacher is not without some sexual overtones, and it takes place in a restaurant. If Mary’s welfare is really at issue here, it is lost in the dynamics of multiple protocols: the protocol of the business lunch, the protocol of the relationship between parent and teacher, and the unstated protocol between a young, attractive woman and an ostensibly successful man.

The summer-school class has disturbed Cynthia. One of her common nightmares, dreamed often after teaching, is that she is falling. Cynthia (realistically) believes that she is not reaching her students. She does not seem to realize that she has failed to help them link literature to their lives. The best Cynthia can do is to keep herself minimally functional. Her own love...

(The entire section is 803 words.)