Last month the 22nd Avenue Book Club read Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife (1998) and everybody liked it and zipped right through it. Kate liked it enough that she picked up another Shreve novel, Testimony (2008) and recommended it to me. And here I am recommending it to Shreve readers - or Jodi Picoult and Ann Patchett readers. I zipped through this one too.
The story is set in exclusive Avery Academy in Vermont. The book is narrated by many people (a technique I particularly like) beginning with Mike, the headmaster, who has just been handed a tape that was shot in an Avery dorm a couple of days earlier. It shows four Avery students having sex. This kind of thing makes its way to You Tube regularly they tell me. But in this tape the boys, all stars on the school basketball team with brilliant careers ahead of them at Brown University and Gonzaga University, are 18 and 19 and the girl is only 14.
The headmaster attempts (foolishly - idiotically really if you consider the thing is already all over You Tube) to keep the story contained within the school. He calls in the three boys involved and demands - with no offer of a lawyer or parents to advise them - written confessions from the two who show up. The third, a local from the town of Avery, cannot be found.
But already the girl has phoned her parents and told them she was plied with alcohol, drugged, and forcibly raped, which we know from the narratives, including her own, is patently untrue. She pursued the boys and her participation was entirely voluntary, which doesn't make it any less illegal, but does help the reader to understand how heartbreaking the repercussions of the incident are and how complex the following attempt at cover up and the frantic press coverage.
The frame of the story is the research of a student at the University of Vermont who is writing about young men and alcohol. Some of the narratives are the responses various people - parents, the boys themselves, the girl, a woman who works in the cafeteria, one boy's girlfriend, the man who was in contention to become the headmaster and lost out to Mike. Others employ an omniscient narrator who tells us about Mike or the mother and father of the local boy. A particularly moving narrative is comprised of the notes the missing boy writes to his girlfriend.
So who is to blame? What went wrong? How could this have been prevented? The answers are many but in some ways there is no answer. It is our culture that has facilitated this crime and destroyed the lives of so many people.
And now I'm off to the library to pick up another Shreve novel.