The relationships among the students at the performing arts high school at the center of Susan Choi’s novel are intense. And the theatre (always with the -re!) teacher seems to thrive on that intensity. For Sarah, the most intense relationship is the one she has with her classmate David. David and Sarah go from flirtation to sex to maybe an romance to nothing, all in a matter of months, that stretch from their freshman to sophomore years. Mr. Kingsley uses their feelings for each other to try to draw out their feelings on the stage. It’s more than a little bit creepy.
I think a lot of former theatre kids (like me) will recognize some elements of Trust Exercise, but I hope not all of it! The students and their teacher seem unable to form healthy connections, teenager to teenager and adult to teenager. Everything is all drama, all the time. To some extent, this seems appropriate in a book about artsy teenagers. An adult remarks to Sarah at one point that she is feeling more intensely at this point in her life than she ever will as an adult, and I get that. But the way the adults feed off the students’ feelings is unsettling, to put it mildly. Sarah seems aware of the problem, but she doesn’t ever articulate it. A lot of the book is about unsettling feelings never explicitly articulated.
And then, halfway through, the book takes a turn that puts the story of Sarah and David in a new light. I knew about this turn before reading — in fact, it’s what made me interested in the book. But if you’d rather not know about it, I suggest that you stop reading now.
When Karen, a minor character in Sarah’s story, takes over the narration, we learn that everything we’ve read so far is from a novel by Sarah. And Karen has some issues with the telling. However, like Sarah, she doesn’t articulate everything that’s wrong. We learn about some different relationships, learn which characters weren’t “real” and which were composites, and we learn that there was more going on than Sarah’s novel revealed.
The thing is, none of this is much of a surprise. The only surprise is that the book we’ve been reading is a book inside a book. But Karen’s reaction does raise questions about ownership of narratives and who can rightly tell which story — not new questions. But, in this case, there’s an added layer of adults who tried to manipulate students’ stories, to turn their relationship drama into fuel for onstage drama. And vice versa, to some extent. In both Sarah and Karen’s narratives, people are using each other again and again as objects in their own stories.
The way the book is structured makes Karen’s narrative, commenting on Sarah’s, feel more true. But I wonder if that’s fair. She adds some texture, certainly, but is she any more honest that Sarah was? There are secrets she’s holding back. And the final section of the book adds an additional layer to Karen’s story that made me even less certain about the truth of her story.
I’m still working out what I think about this book. I like the way Choi leaves a lot of threads dangling and questions unanswered, but I’m not clear when dangling threads convey sloppiness and when they are there to provide something to pick at. At this point, I’m inclined to want to keep picking at the book, and I look forward to following the discussion in the Tournament of Books.