The Devil and Webster is a slow burn campus novel from the perspective of a feminist scholar college president who discovers that ideals and protest are not as clear cut as she once thought. Webster College is an elite liberal arts college in New England and from its less inclusive past has transformed into a centre of free thought, inclusiveness, and protest. Its president Naomi Roth has a protesting past and when another protest sparks up on campus, she sees no reason to discourage it. However, the events that unfold question her beliefs and show that corruption can spring up anywhere and protest can be a grey area.
The novel is full of detail and is quite slow paced, but this culminates in a twist that shows how one situation can very suddenly turn into another one. Naomi’s current life is vividly painted, from her troubled relationship with her daughter Hannah – a student at Webster – to her worries about her closest friend Francine, Webster’s dean of admissions. Combined with this is an image of protest in the modern day, with social media able to spread information and misinformation in the blink of an eye. The conflict in the novel unfolds gradually and though it took a while to be sure that it was going somewhere, the ending and the way in which Naomi is caught in a seemingly futile position despite her best intentions do make it worthwhile.
From reading the acknowledgements at the end, I found out that Naomi Roth had featured in an early novel by Korelitz, but The Devil and Webster worked well as a standalone book and any mystery about Naomi’s past felt like part of the narrative. Though its pace may not appeal to everybody, it is an incisive and sometimes satirical novel about intentions, corruption, and higher education.