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Harvard Square: A Novel Hardcover – April 8, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

A Jewish Egyptian grad student is suffering through a Boston summer in the 1970s, studying for his comprehensive exams and trying to patch together enough cash for food and cigarettes. One day he wanders into Café Algiers, where he meets Kalaj, a thirtysomething Arab cab driver who mesmerizes the regulars with his spectacular put-downs (especially of ­jumbo-ersatz America) and his way with women. Drawn together by language (French) and nostalgia for their Mediterranean childhoods, the two spend the summer wandering from bar to bar, picking up women and talking a blue streak about everything from sex to green cards. But as the fall semester starts up, the student becomes acutely aware of the tension between the refined world of Harvard and his friendship with the often erratic and crude Kalaj, who is soon faced with the threat of deportation. Although Aciman’s plotting is jumpy, Harvard Square provides an interesting look at the dilemmas of identity, the concept of home, and our enduring need to belong. --Lynn Weber


Slyly comic…Touching and beautifully written. (Charles McGrath - New York Times)

[Aciman's] best so far…. An existentialist adventure worthy of Kerouac. (Clancy Martin - New York Times Book Review)

So candid, so penetrating and so beautifully written that it can make you feel cut open, emotionally exposed. (Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal)

A plaintive love letter to displaced, wandering people, to anyone who longs for home and reaches unwisely for the hand of a fellow wanderer. (Ron Charles - Washington Post)

Aciman tackles Big Ideas by observing the smallest, most intimate gestures of two people and letting them talk―and his characters talk beautifully. (Stephan Lee - Entertainment Weekly)

Beautifully done [and] deeply satisfying. (Jillian Keenan - Los Angeles Review of Books)

Entertaining and moving…. Aciman writes a vigorous, muscular prose that is as seductive as his characters. (Julia Klein - Chicago Tribune)

Harvard Square is a darker account of exile itself and the uncertainties of accommodation to a new world while memories of the old tug painfully…. Kalaj [is] warm, impetuous, and whole-hearted…. Aciman succeeds in making him unforgettable. (Richard Eder - Boston Globe)

An illuminating character study and poignant meditation on the twin trials of how to fit in and how to be loved. (Malcom Forbes - San Francisco Chronicle)

A paced, enjoyable read…. The book is hard to put down. (G. Clay Whittaker - The Daily Beast)

Powerful… As in so many classic novels before it, Harvard Square emphasizes both the friendliness and the callousness of America and Americans, the way the country’s great privilege serves as both magnet and goad…. Intense and thoughtful. (Adam Kirsch - Tablet)

Wonderful, riveting.… Beautifully written…. It captures the tenderness and evanescence of youth and ambition. (Farisa Khalid - PopMatters)

Harvard Square sings as a portrait of a fleeting friendship, revealing how platonic closeness can have a romantic tinge as well. (Mark Athitakis - Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Brilliant…A novel of education and isolation, sad and funny and sure to provoke nostalgia for anyone’s college years. (Jessica Freeman-Slade - The Millions)

Andre Aciman has captured the inner life of exile, what it’s like to stand in one place and be reminded of another, to long for that other place, even knowing it no longer exits. (Sandee Brawarsky - The Jewish Week)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039308860X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393088601
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #846,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

André Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature. He has also written many essays and reviews on Marcel Proust. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The New Republic, Condé Nast Traveler, The Paris Review, Granta as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays.

Aciman grew up in a multilingual and multinational family and attended English-language schools, first in Alexandria and later, after his family moved to Italy in 1965, in Rome. In 1968, Aciman's family moved again, this time to New York City, where he graduated in 1973 from Lehman College. Aciman received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and, after teaching at Princeton University and Bard College, is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. He is currently chair of the Ph. D. Program in Comparative Literature and founder and director of The Writers' Institute at the Graduate Center. He has also taught creative writing at New York University, Cooper Union, and and Yeshiva University. In 2009, Aciman was also Visiting Distinguished Writer at Wesleyan University.

Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. His books and essays have been translated in many languages. In addition to Out of Egypt (1995), Aciman has published False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001) and Alibis: Essays on Elswhere (2011), and three novels, Harvard Square (2013), Eight White Nights (2010) and Call Me By Your Name (2007), for which he won the Lambda Literary Award for Men's Fiction (2008). He also edited Letters of Transit (1999) and The Proust Project (2004) and prefaced Monsieur Proust (2003), The Light of New York (2007), Condé Nast Traveler's Room With a View (2010) and Stefan Zweig's Journey to the Past (2010).

He is currently working on a novel tentatively entitled Enigma.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Lynne Perednia VINE VOICE on July 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Friendship, loyalty, the feeling of belonging, and how tenuous these concepts are in reality for the faint at heart, are central to Andre Aciman's latest novel, Harvard Square.

In the summer of 1977, a Jewish graduate student at Harvard from Alexandria, Egypt, who will never go home, is hit by the summer doldrums. He has failed his comprehensives, has one more chance to pass them and needs to read like a fiend all summer. So of course he would rather be doing anything else.

Drawn to a cafe that reminds him of home, he meets a loud, abusive Tunisian Arab who commands the attention of everyone around, especially the women. Kalaj is a cabdriver, but he knows more about many things than just about everyone else. And doesn't mind telling them so.

He's also a performance artist who adores women; his every public move is calculated to draw their attention and flirt until they go off together. Kalaj is mesmerizing to our narrator.

Their acquaintance becomes a friendship of opposites, an academic and cabdriver, Jew and Arab, quiet and boisterous, wavering and steadfast, one with a green card and the other without.

The themes in Aciman's story are well-served by the story of the two young men at turning points in their lives. The academic does not turn his back on Harvard, only on people. Kalaj, after being so vigorously a critic of the ersatz United States and everything it stands for, falls whole-heartedly when he is accepted into the narrator's world.

Aciman does at least as much, if not more, tell rather than show in his story, but with a purpose. The emotions, the observations, the reflections are at the heart of what Aciman's narrator is trying to recapture in the story of that long-ago summer.
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32 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Amelia Gremelspacher TOP 500 REVIEWER on April 1, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Our narrator meets Kalaj in a cafe. He is studying for his next attempt to pass his generals at Harvard. Our narrator is never named, he a Jewish man emigrated from Alexandria while Kalaj is an Arab from Tunis. They are bound by"their respective childhoods in colonial Africa." But while our narrator longs to fit in with his new world, Kalaj expresses nothing but contempt. Kalaj is a short cut for his nickname Kalishnikov, and he is as as fiery and rapid firing as the name implies.

Throughout the book, our narrator virtually disappears other than his reflection in Kalaj. The portrait of Kalaj is rich and finely drawn. The sense of misplacement of the two men is expressive and sly. In fact as the story opens, the narrator has brought his own son to tour Harvard hoping that he will love it as he himself did, even though he admits that "I learned to love Harvard after, not during." As the narrator begins to differentiate himself and to achieve some success at Harvard, Kalij continues to be the anti-hero of his life. In the end, I didn't much like Kalaj. This is not the a disqualification for me to like a book. I didn't really care what happened to the friendship either, which does alienate me from the plot. A vast amount of the book takes place in cafes and bars, and I kept waiting for an interaction to engage me. The writing, however, is incisive and clearly delivered. The touches of seventies culture are nostalgic and well placed. These attributes certainly contribute to the tenor of the book. For me personally, it was just ok.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By GskFn on August 13, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I liked Andre Aciman's Harvard Square. It'll be more fun to read if you have lived in the Boston area or spent time in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But if you don't know what Cantabridgian means, don't let that stop you. The characters in this story probably would tell you, if they could, that they didn't know either when they came halfway around the world and landed in Massachusetts. They interacted with the mainstream but did not join it -- at least not yet, as of the time this novel's story is told. They found their footing on outer rings of Cambridge society and did their thing.

Harvard Square is sort of an intellectual's novel, but not limited to that. Scholars in the humanities or social sciences may relate more easily to the main character than other readers. If you don't care to connect with a Harvard doctoral student in literature who is struggling to prepare for his comprehensive exams, then you might not find it a four-star novel. However rarefied the premise, I think this novel rises above it. There is interesting stuff going on here if you roll with the obvious moments of action and also listen, feel, and think about the characters and their struggles and pleasures. I also appreciate the narrative style most of the time.

Aciman's novel depicts early adulthood slices of life that occasionally flare up into memorable moments. One of those is the following, where the protagonist, the graduate student, collapses in relief after earning an affirmative nod from a bigger-than-life figure in his academic career.
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