Trust Exerciseby Published 09 Apr 2019
|Publisher||Henry Holt & Company|
Pulitzer Finalist Susan Choi's narrative-upending novel about what happens when a first love between high school students is interrupted by the attentions of a charismatic teacher
In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes. When within this striving “Brotherhood of the Arts,” two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley.
The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school’s walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. What the reader believes to have happened to David and Sarah and their friends is not entirely true—though it’s not false, either. It takes until the book’s stunning coda for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place—revealing truths that will resonate long after the final sentence.
As captivating and tender as it is surprising, Trust Exercise will incite heated conversations about fiction and truth, friendships and loyalties, and will leave readers with wiser understandings of the true capacities of adolescents and of the powers and responsibilities of adults.
Trust Exercise Reviews
Thank you to Henry Holt & Company and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Boy, oh boy - where to start? Unfortunately, I have no real positive things to say about this book. I have had it for weeks. Within the first 10 pages I knew this was going to be something I would struggle with. The best way I can describe it is trying to read a book while it's under water. It's never quite fully in focus and I felt like I was only picking up every other word or so. To explain it another way - there is way too much superfluous language and also it doesn't read how I would normally talk. I felt like I was reading a translation of another language. Susan Choi obviously has a talent for the written word, but I wouldn't say she writes for the reader, she writes for herself and the literary critics. (I could be way off base here, and I don't mean this in a mean way, but when 2 or 3 words work, why do you need to use 10? To show off?)
I thought this book would be kind of like Fame - young kids (Sarah and David) who fall in love in the 1980s at a prestigious art school. Not even close. I feel terrible saying this, but don't waste your time. There are too many amazing books out there.
Wow, this one didn't work for me at all. Given how much I read I guess it's surprising that it doesn't happen more often.
Susan Choi's newest book, Trust Exercise , is a marvel of language and imagery, but on the whole, I found it confusing, a bit meandering, and once Choi flipped the script on the plot, I wondered whether what I was reading was actually happening or if it was a figment of the characters' imagination.
The book took place in the early 1980s at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts. The first-year students are ready to being learning Stagecraft, Shakespeare, the Sight-Reading of Music, and, of course, acting, where their charismatic teacher, Mr. Kingsley, puts them through a variety of trust exercises, challenging their sensory perceptions and awakening their emotions.
Two students, Sarah and David, fall for each other, and begin a passionate yet mercurial relationship in full view of their fellow students. But neither of them are ready for the ramifications of a relationship, and they're not prepared for the manipulations of their peers—or Mr. Kingsley, for that matter. In an effort to drown out the pressures of everyday life, Sarah makes a decision which has major ramifications, ramifications that ripple long into the future.
And then Choi speeds up the timeline and sets the book in the future, and the whole narrative goes hazy, so you're not sure if what you read actually happened, or if Choi simply wants you to question the storyline. But that's not her only gimmick, as she throws yet another twist into the plot that once again left me shaking my head.
Susan Choi has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and certainly there's no doubt about her writing ability. But unfortunately, Trust Exercise never worked for me. I have seen some really positive reviews, however, so it may work for someone else.
NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company provided me a copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!
See all of my reviews at itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com, or check out my list of the best books I read in 2017 at https://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com/2018/01/the-best-books-i-read-in-2017.html.
One lurks in every high school: a charismatic teacher who cultivates a clique of acolytes. Miss Jean Brodie aside, this teacher is typically a man in his prime, parceling out the precious gift of his intimacy to a select group. No matter how many years have passed, you can probably still recall his name at your own school: the droll iconoclast who always seemed at odds with the administration, the cool teacher who made thrillingly inappropriate asides. Amid rumors of some past glory, he radiated an air of long-suffering superiority, as though his willingness to teach mere high school students were another example of his largesse.
In fact, as you realize later, he could thrive nowhere else but in that moist terrarium of adolescent desire. He was a vampire thirsty for the fervor of teenage boys and girls.
That immortal figure rises up at the center of Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise,” the latest of her startling novels about academic life. Mr. Kingsley is a theater teacher at Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, an elite institution “intended to cream off the most talented” students and prepare them for “their exceptional lives.” Mr. Kingsley is exotic by the standards of this unnamed Southern town in the early 1980s. He once lived in New York! He refers to Broadway star Joel Grey as Joel! He owns a “bizarre human-size doll that was supposed to be called a ‘soft sculpture.’” To the theater students desperate for his attention, “Mr. Kingsley was impossibly witty and sometimes impossibly cutting; the prospect of talking with him was terrifying and galvanizing; one longed to live up to his brilliance and equally feared that it couldn’t be done.”
This is the most precise skewering of a magnetic teacher since Muriel Spark’s 1961 classic. Choi’s voice blends an adolescent’s awe with an adult’s irony. It’s a letter-perfect satire of the special strain of egotism and obsession that can fester in academic settings. Choi is particularly attentive to Mr. Kingsley’s inane maxims, which his adoring students polish into sacred . . . .
To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
To one degree or another we are manipulated by writers. I don’t think it matters if we read fiction or nonfiction we are influenced just the same. Skillful writers tinker with our beliefs, emotions, philosophies, knowledge (or lack thereof) and so much more. On some level, regardless if we agree or disagree or if we like or dislike what is presented, an element of trust comes into play. Beyond the trust exercises that the characters engage in during theater classes, this novel is an exercise in trusting the author. Told in three parts, each part turns the preceding part on its ear. This comes off as a contrivance rather than as a subtle manipulation. While this is skillfully written and structurally enterprising, on the whole it was much too obvious for my taste.
This is a book that has some structural tricks up its sleeve, similar to books like FATES & FURIES and ASYMMETRY. So you need to proceed with caution when reading anything about it. Just saying it plays with structure feels like a bit of a spoiler, but in this case (like both the books I mentioned before) I think it's good to know because some may find the first section of the book grating enough to quit, not knowing what they are losing by bailing early. Like the other two books, I'd recommend you get at least halfway through before you decide to jump ship.
Now that I've said all that I have the tricky job of trying to tell you all the ways this book thrilled me without being able to actually tell you about the book. TRUST EXERCISE feels like it's in conversation with Choi's last novel, MY EDUCATION. It feels like there are ideas around the power dynamics between men and women, between teachers and students, that she is not done working out. It feels like the right time to do that, the book is timely in a way that makes me worry about seeing too many reviews with hashtag-metoo attached to it, but it really does feel like it's of this particular moment. It is about the narratives women give themselves about the relationships and encounters with men that can leave them with scars of all sizes. It's about the intensity of being a teenager, the depth of feeling and experience that happens without a full understanding of what it means and who you are.
There is some particular joy in this book for theater kids, who will recognize the tight-knit community theater kids form that includes its own dramas and jealousies. It is also a book about the way writers process and change the world and does so in a way that feels fresh and not just another writer-writing-about-writers retread.
I noted in my review of MY EDUCATION how very sharp and amazing Choi's prose and observations are, and I noticed it once again here. Sometimes she has a sentence that makes you gasp from the truth and perfection of it. The style of the prose, overall, can be a bit confounding. It's purposeful, this is a book that makes the reader work, a book that is always aware of just how much it knows that you don't. It can take a little time to get your head straight sometimes, and an entire section switches pronouns just to remind you of its little trick in a way that some may find infuriating but that I adored. (I have a feeling there is a decent number of people who will find the entire book infuriating but I will continue to passionately love and defend it. I love this exact kind of difficult book.)
I am seriously considering re-reading this entire book. (After finishing I immediately reread the final section, which was 100% the right decision.) Even better, I am considering re-reading MY EDUCATION and then re-reading this book. I have a tendency to race when I enjoy a book, I can't let myself slow down and feel it and this time I would like to savor every bite.
Update: I reread MY EDUCATION and then reread TRUST EXERCISE and it was fantastic, highly recommended. TRUST EXERCISE is a book that can leave you feeling like the floor has been pulled out from under you and not all readers like that. This kind of structure can also mean the book doesn't hold up upon subsequent readings. But this one absolutely does. In fact, I had even more joy the second time through knowing what the pieces were and seeing how Choi brings them together. And seeing the ways in which she leaves questions still open. I am fascinated by the ways in which we process the same experiences differently and this book dives into that so hard, I just loved it. I loved how the narrative "tricks" of the book aren't just there to trick you, they're there to tell you something specific about who these people are and why they are telling this specific story. I particularly love the shifting voice and acerbic tone of the second section, it was so incredibly gratifying.