Sunday 13 September 2020

Book club highlights on a warm, sunny morning...

It’s warm and a bit muggy this morning, after the massive rain we got overnight and early this morning, but it’s supposed to get much cooler tomorrow so I’m hoping to go for a long-ish walk this afternoon.  But right now I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar - it feels like forever since I’ve had one of those!  

Yesterday my Volunteer Book Club met for the first time since March.  The community centre where we usually meet is still closed due to COVID-19, but we brought our lawn chairs and sat outside in the sun to discuss Zoe Whittall’s novel, The Best Kind of People.  Four members showed up, an impressive number, considering that it was quite cool early yesterday morning - fortunately it warmed up as we got talking, and I think we were all happy to be back together.  It seemed a bit like a garden party, without the food or drinks (but we had books, which is just as good!).  Here is what I wrote about the book when I first read it in October 2016:

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall tells the story of one family’s experiences in the face of adversity in a wealthy white community outside of Connecticut.  George Woodbury is a well-loved and respected science teacher at a prestigious prep school in Avalon Hills where, nearly a decade before the story is set, he disarmed a school shooter and saved many lives, including that of his seven-year-old daughter, Sadie.  Voted “Best Teacher” every year since, the school, along with his family, is shocked when he is arrested on multiple charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape of minors while on a school ski trip.  Whittall then explores the emotional turbulence of his wife, Joan, a head nurse at the local hospital, daughter Sadie, now seventeen and in the gifted program at the prep school where George teaches, and son Andrew, a gay lawyer living in New York with his partner Jared, as they come to terms with George’s secrets and reconcile themselves to the facts that have been presented while struggling to retain the heroic image of the man they believed him to be.  Loyalty and trust are called into question, and each character must consider everything they thought they knew about their father/husband, as they grapple with this difficult question: Can a man still be a hero if he has also committed unspeakable acts?  It started off really well, and pulled me in immediately.  Setting George up as a hero in the first few pages had me rooting for him to be innocent for about the first third of the book.  But then the evidence begins to pile up, and as accusations mount, the balance shifts and I found myself switching sides.  Of course, the story is told through the eyes of his family members, who really, really want him to be innocent and for their lives to go back to the way they were before, and their experiences of being shunned and ostracized from the very community where they were once respected and loved were difficult to read about but also all-too-realistic.  Whittall never goes into the details of the accusations, nor does she give George a distinct voice in this novel, and she presents the dilemmas of family members caught in this type of situation with understanding and skill.  I think my criticism of this book is that it was too long, and that she presented the experiences of Joan, Sadie and Andrew in too much detail - I was looking forward to reaching the last page, but when I did, I found an abrupt ending that seemed rather rushed, considering all the time and effort devoted to presenting every single detail of everyone’s lives from the time of the arrest to the time of the trial.  The quotation she has at the beginning of the book, though, was poignant and really made me think about the unfairness of society’s views in these types of cases:  “(Rape culture’s) most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the accused, instead of the person reporting the crime…” (Kate Harding, Asking for it).  I didn’t love the book, and I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters, but it was certainly well-written and well-reviewed by many, many sources, so I have to give it an 8 out of 10.”

This time around I felt exactly the same, and others in the book club had similar views.  They wanted him to be innocent, but they struggled to hold onto that belief as the story progressed.  They wanted to know more details about the accusations, and were frustrated to be left not knowing anything about George except what his family members said.  We all agreed that Whittall intentionally painted a picture of George as “the perfect husband”, and “too good to be true” so that we, like the community, would want to believe in his innocence.  We were all shocked to read about the victimization, not just of the girls who came forward, but of the family members, especially Joan and Sadie.  We thought Andrew’s situation was both interesting and sad, and we found the creepy side-story of Kevin-the-writer to also be interesting and sad, and a bit pathetic.  We all loved Joan’s sister Clara, who was as independent as they come, and we thought Elaine, Sadie’s boyfriend’s mom, was a good, solid mother figure, firm yet understanding.  We noted the importance of appearances in this novel, and people or situations were often judged on first impressions or reputation, not what is true.  No one loved the book, but no one hated it, either. I think we mainly found it a rather disturbing topic to read about.  It was a good book club selection, though, as we had plenty to discuss.  I would recommend it for anyone looking for something to recommend to their own book club.

That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful week!

Bye for now…


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