When I was in high school, the tests in my English classes were given to make sure that we’d actually read the books on our assigned-reading lists. The questions were all about the characters and plot. As a result, when I got to college and was asked to analyze texts, I felt completely at sea. Suddenly, I was expected to have original thoughts and ideas about the great novels we were reading (at least one book every week! Imagine that). Used to simply parroting back the who, what and where, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the why.
Those old sensations came rushing back to me as I read Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, which left me feeling confused and, yes, a little bit stupid. As regular readers of this blog are aware, I mainly read and review crime fiction, but I do dip into literary fiction from time to time. Trust Exercise is certainly one of the most lauded books of the year so far, with the Boston Globe calling it “piercingly intelligent, engrossingly entertaining” and Publishers Weekly raving, “Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.”
I might have given up on it after the first 30-40 pages had it not been from the blurb on the back by one of my favorite authors, Tom Perrotta, who described it as “an uncanny evocation of the not-so-distant past that turns into a meditation on the slipperiness of memory and the ethics of storytelling.” The book starts out by telling the story of a romance between two high school freshmen, Sarah and David, who attend a performing-arts school with a theater department that is led by a highly charismatic teacher. Sarah and David have a lot of sex, described in a way that is almost repulsive, which may be appropriate, since who wants to get turned on by reading about two 15-year-olds?
Some of the writing seems pretty bad, especially when a troupe of performers from the U.K. come to Sarah and David’s school in order to present a run of “Candide.” The British characters’ speech patterns struck me as particularly fake, kind of like an “oi, guvnor” parody. But eventually, I figured, something would turn, as Perrotta’s quote promised. And it finally does, about halfway through, when we are presented with a new narrator who informs us that everything we’ve read up to now is from a novel written by “Sarah,” looking back on her high school experiences. An untrustworthy narrator, as it were. But is the person narrating part 2 any more reliable?
What really made my head hurt, though, was the book’s brief third part, which upends almost everything we’ve read about in parts one and two. If I’d been assigned to write a term paper about what it all meant, I’d have given up in frustration. But luckily, there’s Google, and I searched for “Trust Exercise ending.” That led me to this brilliant review by a college professor, who just goes ahead and lays out her whole theory of what happens in the book and what it all means. (Spoiler alert, obviously.) I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading the novel, but Adriel Trott’s review made so many things click into place that I felt at least I finally understood what the author was getting at.
So while Trust Exercise isn’t a particularly fun or entertaining book to sit and read by yourself, I do think it would be an interesting book to discuss. I wasn’t sure I wanted to review it, since admitting that your first thoughts upon closing a novel are “What did I just read? What just happened?” is kind of embarrassing. But there can be value in getting out of your comfort zone, right? Still, I think the next book I read will be something a little more straightforward.