The book: All seems well for middle-aged English professor Cynthia until her coworker leaves for a mysterious position at another university and is replaced by a captivating newcomer whose bizarre behavior draws attention. Soon, Cynthia finds herself embroiled in a strange new world, discovering that she, too, is not what she seems.
Unbecoming (Aqueduct Press) is a feminist fantasy set at a liberal arts college where magic starts to infiltrate the hallowed halls of the English department. Lesley Wheeler *94 writes a tale that brings characters to life as she draws her readers into this uncanny world of witchery and magical powers.
The author: Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Lesley Wheeler is the author of five poetry books, including The State She’s In, Radioland, and The Receptionist and Other Tales; the latter was shortlisted for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award. Her poems and essays appear in Ecotone, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Poetry, Strange Horizons, Massachusetts Review, and many other magazines. The Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, she blogs at lesleywheeler.org and lives in Lexington, Virginia.
Opening lines: Alisa’s name lit up my phone while I sat in my car, waiting for a hot flash to subside.
“I need you to make a stop,” she said in her new voice, high and dreamy. My best friend was about to head to Wales for the year on an obscure faculty exchange program, and she was changing. “There should be a fax waiting at the office.”
“Since when is there a fax machine at the office?”
Since always, she insisted, so I promised to look. Every element of this process had been peculiar. Prickling with misgivings, I hung up, reversed out of my driveway, and detoured to campus.
There were no spots, so I made a risky place for my Hyundai at a yellow curb and scurried to our building. A print-out waited in a corner of the mailroom, on top of a hunk of beige plastic I would have sworn I’d never seen before. I squinted at the sheets, so often copied that the print was fuzzy, each page crested with a dragon.
When I grabbed them, the last page leapt up and opened a red slit in my thumb. Cursing, I jammed the cut into my mouth and sucked. Later I would have a vision of an empty socket next to the dusty machine, plug lying idle, but I must have misremembered.
I shoved the papers into my messenger bag and jogged back to the car, climbing into the driver’s side as a vengeful parking enforcement officer raced up in his golf cart. “Not this time,” I whispered, inserting the key with uncharacteristic dexterity and revving out. My rearview mirror reflected his scowl.
Speeding for a couple of blocks, I turned down Lord Fairfax Street and slowed. The poshest avenue in our Virginia town began not far from its small college, past a run of boutiques and farm-to-table bistros. The first houses were red-brick aristocrats, built just after the Civil War and set standoffishly beyond cool front lawns. Then came wooden Victorians with turrets and tin roofs and smaller but exquisitely maintained gardens. Alisa’s Arts and Crafts bungalow sat further along, after a gentle incline began to falter downhill toward the river. Parking by her elderberry hedge, I took a deep breath of air-conditioned chill before killing the engine.
I would get through this day by force of will, putting one foot ahead of another, delivering my dearest ally to the airport, picking up her inadequate replacement.
The door stood ajar. I hesitated in the August heat. Then I rapped the brass knocker before ducking in.
Review: “The story of a woman leading an ordinary life who discovers within herself extraordinary powers, Unbecomingis sage, funny, and warm, like a long conversation with your best friend about all the strange and wonderful things that have been happening to her lately. Lesley Wheeler’s writing is so deft and magical that I’m convinced she must have learned it from the fairies. This smart, beguiling debut fantasy casts a spell that readers won’t want to break.” — Emily Croy Barker, author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic and How to Talk to a Goddess