Amy Gentry’s new novel Bad Habits is so much fun to read that it feels like you’re cheating somehow. It’s got the perfect setting—a prestigious and pretentious grad school program ominously referred to as The Program, where students and professors misbehave outrageously. And the friendship at its heart detonates a series of double-crosses and revelations that are breathtaking and sometimes hilarious. How can one book be so unrelenting in its sense of unease, yet also so much fun?
Academic rock star Claire “Mac” Woods has just given a keynote address when she spies Gwen, her former best friend from grad school, at the hotel bar. It’s a prickly reunion, doused in alcohol, and Claire awakens from a blackout thinking she’s confessed a long-held secret. Said secret, and the story behind it, comes out in flashbacks as Claire hunts for Gwen (and I do mean hunts) inside the hotel. What unspools is a tale of class disparity, friendship, competition, infidelity and the variable exchange rates of sex and power. It’s a knockout.
Gentry’s light touch with such high-stakes subject matter is impressive. The program Gwen and Claire (who then went primarily by “Mac”) attended is rich in details that feel true to a university experience, even as the novel skewers how how much of that experience is artifice or make-believe. Several storylines tug at the reader’s attention, but Gentry continually reminds us of what we don’t yet know with a refrain that is jarring each time it reappears: “The accident. The farmhouse.” The misdirection pays off each time because we’re so invested in this fragile, fractured relationship.
If you liked Good as Gone, Gentry’s debut novel, Bad Habits has a theme in common with it: Sometimes the biggest surprises stem from a truth that was staring you in the face all along. Read Bad Habits for a satirically surreal take on higher education, and for an antihero you’ll lose sleep over.