When I encounter a book I’ve never seen before that is set in a boarding school, SOP is to buy the book first and ask questions later. When Anita Shreve’s Testimony was published in 2008, I remember being very pleased with myself for NOT purchasing it right away. I just had a feeling that it wasn’t going to be good and I was going to be annoyed, and trust me, I did not need one more thing to be annoyed about in 2008. My annoyance plate was already quite full that year. I picked the paperback up a few years later at Target (for 20% off – the book still has the sticker on it) and then rediscovered it on a shelf last weekend.
Most of the time what I enjoy most about books about boarding schools is how wrong they all are. Very few fictional representations of boarding schools capture the realities of that world: the grinding schedule, the relentless forward motion of time, the giddiness that comes from being constantly stimulated and constantly exhausted. The intimacies (and I don’t mean sexual intimacies, although those happen too, of course) – I know more about the dogs of some of my boarding school colleagues than I do about actual people I’ve worked with at other jobs. One novel that does capture what boarding school feels like is The Catcher in the Rye. Remember chapter 2, when Holden goes to say goodbye to his history teacher, who is in bed with the flu? As a kid, I read through that scene without thinking about it, focusing on the many humorous moments – Holden commenting on the teacher’s hairy, pale chest under his bathrobe, and so forth. It wasn’t until later that I reread this scene and thought about it through my own perspective rather than through Holden’s. This is an older man (Holden exaggerates about his age, of course, but he seems at least sixty) in bed with the flu, and here comes Mr. Sarcastic Underachiever in his red hunting hat to say goodbye. The teacher has his stack of graded exams in bed with him while he has the flu. If you filter out Holden’s sarcasm, what you see is a man who cares more about a failing student than he does about his own health and his own privacy. That’s boarding school. That’s it right there.
I was pleasantly surprised by Testimony in one sense: Shreve gets the day-to-day details of life in boarding school down on the page fairly well. She clearly has some experience as a teacher or parent in a contemporary boarding school setting. As I was reading, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel was set at New Hampton School in New Hampshire, a school at which I interviewed in 2007 and which struck me as perilously poised on the edge of a scandal like the one in this novel.
This novel is about what happens when a sex tape surfaces and makes its way to the headmaster (I can barely type that word without cringing – just about every school nowadays uses “Head of School”) – at what is described as a prestigious boarding school (this could be a credibility slip – there is a mistaken sense out there in the world that all boarding schools are prestigious. Some are, sure – but some will take anyone. I’m just saying.) called Avery Academy. The headmaster’s response is to quietly expel the students involved and do everything possible to avoid alerting the media. The novel is structured with shifting points of view: a chapter about the headmaster receiving and viewing the tape is followed by a chapter about Ellen, a mother of one of the students involved (Ellen’s chapters are written in the second person, for reasons I could not discern). All of the students involved have their say, as do the other parents, various townspeople and members of the police department and media, and other students who only know small parts of the story. Sometimes I think shifting points of view are a copout because they free a novelist from having to tell the story well through the limited perspective of one character; however, it occurs to me that shifting third person may be the only realistic way to tell a story set at a boarding school, because a boarding school by nature is a multi-eyed beast. Nothing is ever viewed through only one lens.
So some quick details on the sex tape: four students, including one holding the camera who is never identified to the authorities (although we as readers know who he is). Three are senior or PG boys (Anita Shreve even knows what PG’s are and how they behave – I was especially impressed by this!) on the basketball team; the fourth is a freshman girl. In the video, the girl performs oral sex on one of the seniors and has sexual intercourse with another. While the girl gives the impression in the video of being very willing to engage in these sex acts, she later calls her parents and tells them she was raped. They’re the ones who call the police, and that’s how the media, the local police, and several local residents get involved. Two of the boys are expelled first and then later arrested; the third leaves campus before the authorities can find him and goes for a long hike in the woods, where he is later found frozen to death. It wouldn’t be a boarding-school novel without a death.
In spite of Shreve’s above-average command of the realities of boarding school life, I felt a general dislike of this book as I was reading it, and I didn’t realize until I started writing this review that the reason I found this book so unimpressive is the fact that not one single thing happens that is unpredictable. The parents all react to their children’s expulsion in a predictable way. The girlfriend of the boy who disappears in the woods reacts to his death in a predictable way. I was never once surprised by anything that happened. Because the thing is, in boarding schools, incidents like this one happen all the time. There isn’t usually a tape involved – and the combination of this piece of hard evidence and the fact that the girl’s parents called the police and the media dictated a specific course of action that had to happen in this novel. Usually, administrators become aware of these sorts of incidents through rumors and innuendo, and with no proof these incidents are handled via a combination of enhanced supervision, the planning of educational events about safe sex or some other relevant topic, and the counseling of individual students by dorm parents, deans, or health staff. When I was a boarding school administrator, we had something called “the statutory rape talk,” and we gave it all the time. The dean of students would look at his to-do list and announce that so-and-so needs the statutory rape talk – who’s on it? We also had something called the “Anal Sex Phone Tree,” but that’s a story for another day.
It’s possible that Anita Shreve knows the boarding school world too well – but it’s also possible that she sabotaged her own novel by packing the first few chapters with several incidents and details that could only lead to one realistic result. With a sex tape and a rape charge given in the first few chapters, the characters’ only choices for the remainder of the novel are in the area of what color shirt to wear to the arraignment. The plot proceeds with grim inevitability toward its end – like a novel that opens in New York City on September 10, 2001.
This novel is the literary equivalent of iceberg lettuce. There’s no there there. It’s not unpleasant or bad, but reading it will not do one single thing to nourish your mind or soul. I can’t think of a single reason that this novel ought to exist. People who are naïve enough to believe that these kinds of sexual incidents don’t happen in high schools might be a little titillated by the scandal. There’s a certain amount of forward momentum to the plot, and the short, character-driven chapters give the novel a fast (almost frenetic) pace that a reader might find amenable to a plane trip or beach vacation. But there are so many books out there that are better, that will leave characters and situations in your mind that you will carry with you forever. Why waste your time on one like this?
Hi – Any thoughts on teenagers reading this book as a cautionary tale?
I think it’s fine for teenagers to read, especially since it’s so close to several high profile incidents that have been in the media lately.