A New England sex scandal

There is a scene in the book “Testimony” where one character tells another, “I’ve liked you from the first moment I saw you.”

The quote could just as well apply to my fondness for Anita Shreve’s fiction. I’ve liked her writing from the first moment I read the opening pages of one of her early books.

Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve

Shreve is a prolific author, with 12 previously published novels. I’ve read a handful of them and “Testimony” (2008) makes six. I picked it up outside a house in the neighborhood, where the residents left a pile of books for the taking one summer night, and I found it a quick and gripping read of 305 pages.

It’s the story of a New England boarding school, an elite institution tucked away in rural Vermont. A scandal triggered by the discovery of a videotape showing students having sex in a dorm room turns the school upside down and inside out.

The headmaster tries to get the students implicated in the tape to confess, with the hope that internal disciplinary measures, including expulsion, will keep the scandal out of the news. That one of the participants is a 14-year-old freshman girl – willing or unwilling, he cannot tell – raises the stakes of what he believes to be a sexual assault.

The headmaster’s best laid plans go off the rails and Shreve expertly recounts the implosion that follows through a chorus of voices that includes students, parents, administrators, classified staff, the local police chief and a newspaper reporter, among others.

testimonyThe technique is a familiar one: Devote alternating chapters to characters who give their take on the events leading up to and following the scandal. The result is a multilayered narrative with plenty of room for interpretation, misinterpretation and speculation about what someone said or did – or didn’t say or do.

Shreve has few peers who can match her crisp, lean prose and ear for dialogue. She excels at creating characters who are prone to self-examination and driven by a search for meaning.

The book jacket says it better than I ever could:

No one more compellingly explores the dark impulses that sway the lives of seeming innocents, the needs and fears that drive ordinary men and women into intolerable dilemmas, and the ways in which our best intentions can lead to our worst transgressions.”

Shreve lives in Massachusetts and she writes masterfully about the people and places of that region of the country. Every book of hers that I’ve read has drawn me in and caused me to ponder how I would act and what I would feel in certain situations involving ethics, morals and relationships.

If you’ve never read her, “Testimony” just might be a place to start. Then again, maybe not, judging by the mixed reviews:

Shawn Stufflebeam in contemporary lit.com

Kamila Shamsie in The Guardian

Erika Schickel in the Los Angeles Times

Photograph: startribune.com

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