Changing Places by David Lodge

This book was a gift to me from a family friend who has had a lengthy career in college-level teaching, when I was one semester in to that job, three years ago now. I’m sorry I waited so long; it was hysterical! I ate it up in just over a day. Thank you, David!

Further confession: I have been using this opening sentence for class writing prompts for a few semesters and never reading beyond it.

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.

Changing Places is a bit of a situation comedy, in which two universities exchange professors, who then experience culture shock, joy, and eye-opening changes. The setting in time is significant: 1969 offers women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, experimentation with pot, and other fun. The settings in place are significant, too. Rummidge is a mid-sized, industrial, English city without much to recommend it, and the University of Rummidge is not particularly well-regarded. The American state of Euphoria is located on the west coast, between Northern and Southern California; this state, and the State University of Euphoria, are known to be gorgeous, scenic, climactically sublime, rarified, and filled with protests and strife in this spring of ’69. Similarly, Rummidge’s professor Philip Swallow is mild, retiring, unambitious, and a bit bumbling, while Euphoria’s Morris Zapp is accomplished, arrogant, and considers himself entitled to both accolades and undergraduates’ sexual favors. This last is why he’s willing to take the stepdown to Rummidge for six months: his wife, finally fed up, has asked him to vacate, and a posting to Europe (however disappointing a version thereof Rummidge may be) seems the least undignified option. Swallow, on the other hand, is honored, if uneasy about leaving his own wife and children behind for half a year. (His department chair wants him far away while a junior faculty member receives a promotion.)

There’s the situation, then. Zapp is taken down a peg, and nonplussed by the failures of England to make a big deal of him. (Also the lack of heat and entertainment.) He will eventually find opportunities in the absence of structure in Rummidge’s English department, however. Swallow is blown back by Euphoria’s gusto and apparently limitless, all-color chances to get into every kind of trouble (sex, drugs and political protests being just the beginning). He will eventually begin to ‘find himself’ therein. Even the unlikeable Zapp achieves growth and a note of redemption at some point (still unlikeable, though). The wives (and other women) are less central and less developed, but actually deep, complex, realistic character development isn’t the point here. And the women have some ass-kicking attitude that I appreciate. No, this is a novel of caricature and satire, poking fun at English departments, at academia, at the changing cultures of 1969, and at types – centrally, the mild-and-retiring professor and the arrogant, womanizing one, although there are certainly others. Originally published in 1975, this does not count as historical fiction but contemporary (in relation to its authorship), and one might fear stereotypes that would offend today’s readers, but I didn’t find it problematic in that way at all. Just good, solid fun.

We end with a scene (written as a screenplay, unlike the rest of the novel) in a New York hotel room, with both professors and their wives gathered to try and sort out their futures. Lodge finishes with a thorough cliffhanger, which I frankly appreciate, even if the lack of answers hurts a bit. This is the first in a trilogy, so there’s that.

David, solid gift. Thank you.


Rating: 7 chicken dinners.

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