Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Title: Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Author: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Genre: Literary fiction, contemporary fiction
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
Source: Personal copy
For: fun

Ms. Hempel is the young teacher, the one who wants to be loved by her students and accepted by the other teachers. She is trying to reconcile her role as a teacher, a daughter, a lover, a friend, melding her past experiences with her current ones and trying to reach what she hopes for in the future. This novel consists of eight loosely connected stories that explore Ms. Hempel's attempts to reconcile her roles and find self-acceptance.

I'll be honest - I had pretty high hopes for this book. I loved the concept of taking snapshots of eight different pieces of a woman's life and using it to expose the whole. However, the stories were not quite unified enough to present a cohesive picture of Ms. Hempel, instead giving me eight pieces of a photograph that had been ripped in ten or twelve pieces.

The book started out well for me. In some ways, I could really relate to Ms. Hempel. She is insecure, balancing her desire to be a good teacher with her desire to be liked, to be admired. She is uncomfortable with her position of constantly being on parade in front of an audience of students ranging from passionate and eager to completely apathetic. She feels the need to be a role model but isn't always able to live up to her standards of what a role model should be. She also isn't really finished growing up herself, still learning to accept the fact that she has chosen her life and career and that now the realm of possibility that extends before the young has been significantly narrowed for her. I loved these elements and was excited to see how they came together. However, they never really did. A few things are resolved - we read a story in which Ms. Hempel's students confide in her and seek her out as a source of comfort, indicating that she is loved by her class. Another story presents her choice of a controversial book for her readers that they utterly relate to, eventually convincing their parents that despite the language and themes of the book, it is serving its purpose as a meaningful educational tool, showing she is developing into a good teacher. However, in her personal life she seemed more and more unresolved as the stories continued. Her confidence and her social life seemed to deteriorate, even in the end, when she is unexpectedly (SPOILER... AVERT THINE EYES!) married and pregnant. Maybe this was intentional - maybe Bynum was trying to show that as she reached her goals in her profession, her personal life deteriorated. However, this theme wasn't strong enough to be palpable or definable.

The stories also had many elements that didn't quite connect. Sometimes, I kind of like this, not because it is enjoyable to read, per se, but because I feel like it is true to life. Plenty of things have happened in my life that don't necessarily connect or make sense. A few years ago, when I completely changed my future educational and career plans, I remember writing in my personal journal how unexpected some of the things that were happening in my life actually were. So maybe the disconnect is intentional. Regardless, it was a bit disorienting for me. I enjoyed the stories, but I wasn't sure what the entire picture I was supposed to be getting was.

One element of the book that was fantastic was the writing. Bynum certainly has a talent. Ms. Hempel's experiences, though at times disconnected, were vividly portrayed. For this reason, I do still hope to read more of her work - I think that she could in the future offer a book that is very moving. While Ms. Hempel Chronicles was not that book, I can tell that Bynum is an evocative and creative writer. What she attempted with Ms. Hempel Chronicles was ambitious, and while it was not an absolute success, it does indicate a talent to watch in the future.

3 stars

Warnings: Swearing, nudity, innuendo


  1. Thanks for reviewing this. I'm a young teacher myself and think I would get a lot out of reading this.

  2. Thanks for reviewing this. Although I'm sorry to hear that it didn't all work for you, hearing your descriptions made me want to read it even more.

  3. @Sam - I think it would be a great book for a teacher to read. While I think the discontinuity might still be an issue, the writing really is beautiful and I'm sure as a teacher you've seen a lot of the situations described in the book.

    @LBC - I'm glad that you want to read it! It wasn't my favorite book, but it was an interesting experience and I think it could really work for the right kind of reader.


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