The Dilettantes by Michael Hingston


The Dilettantes by Michael Hingston | Published in 2013 by Freehand Books | Paperback: 267 pages | Source: Review copy from publisher

My rating: 4/5 stars



The Peak: a university student newspaper with a hard-hitting mix of inflammatory editorials, hastily thrown-together comics and reviews, and a news section run the only way self-taught journalists know how—sloppily.

Alex and Tracy are two of The Peak‘s editors, staring down graduation and struggling to keep the paper relevant to an increasingly indifferent student body. But trouble looms large when a big-money free daily comes to the west-coast campus, threatening to swallow what remains of their readership whole.

It’ll take the scoop of a lifetime to save their beloved campus rag. An exposé about the mysterious filmed-on-campus viral video? Some good old-fashioned libel? Or what about that fallen Hollywood star, the one who’s just announced he’s returning to Simon Fraser University to finish his degree?

I had all sorts of preconceived notions going into The Dilettantes. I thought I wouldn’t relate to it for various reasons, all of which were dumb and easily dismissed once I started reading. I think I was creating an elaborate defence mechanism, so if I didn’t like the book, I could be like “WELL it’s just because of X Y and Z” instead of having to say “I just didn’t like it,” which would be awkward because I will likely see the author at numerous literary events in Edmonton over the next few months. Luckily, I did like the book. A lot.

I thought it might be fun (…for me) to talk about all those excuses I came up with before reading the book, and how they were (mostly) overcome.

1. It’s about Millennials! Millennial are whiny and self-absorbed! I will strain something from rolling my eyes too much!

Depending who you ask, I’m a Gen-Xer by a margin of three months, or a Millennial by a margin of nine. Guess which one I choose to identify with? Yeah, I was only ten when Nevermind was released, but I spent my formative years without a cellphone or high speed internet. But here’s the thing: all “new adults” are whiny and self-absorbed. I mean, Catcher in the Rye, anyone? I wrote horrible poetry in a notebook when I was pretending to study, while these kids were probably posting to their Tumblrs or whatever. Big diff. The generational thing wasn’t an issue at all.

2. It’s about kids who actually went to class. And joined things, like newspapers.  I hated those people. And also sort of regret I wasn’t one of those people. It’s complicated.

I don’t read a lot of campus novels. Maybe part of the reason is my ambivalence about my own university career. I was a great student.  I just didn’t care about university, academically or socially. I didn’t make any friends. I certainly didn’t join any clubs. I went to the minimum number of classes I could get away with and didn’t contribute anything more than I had to. My energies, such as they were, were put towards clubbing and boys. This book made me feel at once nostalgic for something I never had, and relieved that I delayed the burden of giving a shit about stuff for a few more years. It also made me stop and evaluate a time in my life that was really difficult for me. When a book can make you do that, well, what more can you ask for?

3. It’s going to be about boys and boy things and I don’t want to read about boys right now *foot stomp*

I often assume that first novels are at least semi-autobiographical, and it’s an easy assumption to make in this case: Hingston really went to SFU and worked at The Peak, which is actually called The Peak.  So I was expecting a male point of view. I wasn’t surprised at all when I met “Alex” and admit I pictured him as the author the whole time. I was pleasantly surprised when I was introduced to Tracy, the female protagonist.

Back outside, Tracy lit a cigarette. She wasn’t unattractive, and didn’t consider herself so, but whenever she talked to a girl like Anna, who actually turned heads, Tracy felt herself standing up straighter to compensate…she only ever realized she was doing it afterward, when her lower back began to ache and she felt her spine settle back into it’s familiar slouch. Oh well. Better than sticking my tits out, she thought.

So yeah, I like her. I also enjoyed her loser boyfriend, and their horrible break-up  – Tracy’s recounting of the “nail in the coffin” conversation is so astonishingly horrible, I had to read it three times to make sure I didn’t imagine what I had just read. But somewhere in the second half of the novel, Tracy just kind of fades away. I’ve talked about this phenomenon in classic books, and while Tracy is not so blatantly just there to move the hero’s story forward, I didn’t really know why she was there, in the end.

The first few chapters are divided between Alex and Tracy’s perspectives, but at the end, it’s all Alex. She and Alex have this almost-flirtation thing going on, which goes exactly nowhere. I was cringing at the thought of a big cliched romantic ending, but then when it didn’t happen, I was disappointed. I think I just missed Tracy though. She was a more compelling character to me. That may be because I also spent much time in university smoking and scowling and dating losers, but I really do think she had potential that wasn’t realized.

4. It’s a “funny” book and I only like books that make me cry.

The Dilettantes did not make me cry, but the humour was so effective I didn’t care. Plus, it is nice to wake up without puffy eyes once in a while.

Hingston walks a fine line. The gross-out humour could easily have turned nasty, and the pop culture references could have tipped from sharp satire to boring name-dropping, but they didn’t. I laughed out loud more times than I can remember while reading this novel, often in public.  This, from Tracy’s boyfriend Dave, got me in a coffee shop:

“Yes. Today is chamomile. It’s a bit of a madhouse up there at the moment, but some truly interesting specimens are emerging. Data that’ll rock Big Lipton to it’s foundations.

And then there was the club sign up sheet, which includes such groups as “‘I actually don’t own a TV, so…'” and “Legalize it – You Know What I’m Talking’ ‘Bout.” Maybe I should have looked into joining clubs in university after all.

The humour fell flat only in the climactic scene, which went for manic physical comedy, but left me confused as to what the heck was happening. Maybe it’ll make more sense on a reread.

5. I won’t get the pop culture references and I will feel old.

I know, I sound like I’m 20 years older than the characters in this book instead of five (okay, seven.) I needn’t have worried. Wu-Tang Clan, Alanis Morisette, and Felicity all make appearances. Yes, I suspect these references might be a little ironic and in the case of Alanis, are definitely meant to be retro, but that’s okay.

The references to Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, say it all, as far as I’m concerned. Alex and Tracy dismiss them as boring and old, while I “discovered” both authors this year and fell in love.

“Ondaatje,” she said, as if the man’s name were a curse word.

“Ah. Say no more.”

“Next semester is my CanLit pre-req. I put up a good fight, too, but I couldn’t escape it – or him. So I’m just going to buy up his whole damn catalogue and call it a day.”

Alex offered his consolences. “It happens to the best of us,” he said. For a moment he felt like they were a pair of grizzled World War II veterans comparing shrapnel wounds. “What about Atwood? Did you ever have to do her?”

“Handmaid’s Tale,” she said. “Twice. You?”

“We read Alias Grace in 1st-year. Then later I signed up for a course on Homer – only to find out that the first five weeks would be spent on Atwood’s feminist rewrite thing. I ran away at the first break and never looked back.”

They have a point though. We all need a break from Atwood and Ondaatje sometimes, and this is just the thing: hilarious, smart, and surprising.

Come see Michael at Audreys Books this Saturday, September 14, at 2:00 pm. I’ll be there, buying a copy for my cousin who just went off to university. Until then, check these out, or just go read the book, already:

Thank you to Freehand Books for the review copy of this book!



  1. danielleparadis

    I LOVED Tracy. When I read the description of her I was so happy. OMG SHE ISN’T PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL AND THIN. She was a real human! I missed her too when she melted away. Now I kind of feel like Alex took her for granted and I am like UGH TYPICAL.

    I raised an eyebrow when they didn’t like the Handmaid’s Tail. But then, what better way is there to ruin the discovery of an author than by being forced to study them? Unless you were a nerd like me with a crush on your English teacher.

    I will be at the book launch too and I have recommended the book to a few parents whose children are off to college.

    • lauratfrey

      I’m going to meet you in real life?! Yay! We can discuss Tracy AND the ending. I didn’t want to put spoilers in my review but I am dying to talk to someone about it 🙂

      I agree, I didn’t read any Atwood or Ondaatje in school and that’s good, they’re probably best read as an adult.

      I liked my English teachers but sadly none were crush-worthy.

  2. Brie @ Eat Books

    Great review – I liked this style – very entertaining! I really hope now I can make it to Michael’s reading. My University experience was kind of a bore. Two years at U of A in general studies and then 3 years at MacEwan for nursing. The nursing program was more like high school (only 30 people in my class and the same 30 people for the entire thing) so I feel like I kind of missed out on a “real University experience”. But whatever, right? 😉

  3. Rick @

    It’s fun to see other people’s misconceptions or hang ups about books. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone review a book like this before. Kudos 🙂

    Based on your thoughts going in, it seems like your sweet spot is old books about unmotivated women that make you cry. Haha!

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