Completed in 1958, Helen Hadley Hall at Yale University opened that fall as a residence for female graduate students (female undergraduates were not admitted until 1970). Who exactly was Helen Hadley? Of this benefactress, almost nothing is known: her life story seems forever lost, and no amount of Googling could reveal it. But if James Magruder is to be believed, she was born in 1895, died in 1951, and her ectoplasmic emanation still resides in the residence hall named after her, where she takes a continued interest in the women (and eventually, men) who reside with her, especially in their love lives.
Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall by James Magruder chronicles Helen Hadley’s favorite time, the nine months of the 1983-84 academic year, and retells the erotic misadventures of Silas Huth, Becky Engelking, Nixie Bolger, Carolann Chudek, and Randall Flinn (among many others; many others). Silas, smitten by Scott Jencks (a fellow French grad student), loses his chance to date him by a single day to Peter Faccianfinta, so he pursues Luca Lucchese (a townie), but eventually pairs up with the monkish Randall. Nixie pursues fellow graduate student Walt Stehlik, who has hooked up with Peter (and others in Helen Hadley Hall; many others), while Carolann becomes enamored with Professor Nathaniel Gates….Honestly, do these students ever study? I mean, for their classes. (And who will Becky end up with?)
Love Slaves brings to mind an updated A Small World by David Lodge: however, the latter concerns itself with full-fledged academics, intent on traveling to conferences, securing tenure, and trying to survive inter-departmental politics; the former focuses almost entirely on the bed-hopping among all these randy grad students at the beginning of their academic careers. The constantly shifting relationships, the who-is-currently-sleeping-with-this-one-but-really-wants-to-sleep-with-that-one, and the keeping track of who has slept with whom, while entertaining (and often inventive—I’ll never think of college library study carrels the same way again) can overwhelm the reader at times.
Nevertheless, there is much to delight the reader. It is amusing to see all these students carry on their frantic love lives without hook-up apps, e-mail, or constant texting. (In the 1980s—which weren’t that long ago!—telephones did not fit in pockets, and were used only for talking to other people who were not in the same room with you.) And, as befits grad students in the humanities, the characters have a great love of language that is difficult to resist, and even Helen Hadley’s ghost is not immune. (Where else will you find a spirit fluent in the classical Greek callipygous and its modern slang equivalent “bootylicious?”) Magruder captures perfectly the milieu of the early 80s, including the onset of a new “gay cancer” and the ensuing misinformation about it. For despite the light-hearted tone of much of this novel, the serious specter of AIDS hovers over it, the full impact of which is only revealed in the dénouement.
A discreet Google search revealed that Helen Hadley Hall still stands, contradicting the cover copy that it was to be demolished. (It had, however, been fully renovated during the years 2010-13.) For a mere $6400 to $8500 per academic year, you too may be one of 178 graduate students to rent a cubicle at 420 Temple Street, New Haven, CT while attending Yale. However, there are no promises that you will become the love slave of the ghost of Helen Hadley, willing or otherwise.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske